House panel pans EPA Bay plan, as scientists see progress


Republican (Correction: and Democratic) lawmakers in Washington questioned federally ordered Chesapeake Bay pollution reductions on Thursday, even as scientists in Maryland were reporting signs the long-running cleanup effort has been making progress after all.

The House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry grilled an Environmental Protection Agency official, complaining about the costs of meeting the agency's bay restoration targets and questioning the accuracy of its computer model for setting them.

"We are in the midst of a process that could cost individual states like Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania more than 10 billion dollars per state," Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., said, according to a report in Agri-Pulse. "What's most problematic is that no one can say with certainty whether the cost is worth the effort, as we still do not have a cost-benefit analysis of this process."

Shawn Garvin, EPA's mid-Atlantic regional administrator, told lawmakers the agency hope to have by 2013 an analysis of the costs and benefits of pollution reductions undertaken by the states to comply with the Total Maximum Daily Load, commonly called a "pollution diet," the agency has set for the bay.  And he said the agency is working to refine its computer model and plans a full reevaluation of cleanup targets and methods by 2017, midway to the 2025 deadline for having all restoration measures in place.

Meanwhile, scientists at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science said that after taking a new look at 60 years' worth of water monitoring data, they've found that the "dead zone" that forms each year in the bay has actually been shrinking in late summer since the late 1980s, tracking declines in nitrogen levels measured in the Susquehanna River, the bay's largest tributary.

As I reported today in The Baltimore Sun, the researchers said that they were encouraged by the finding. In an ecosystem as large (64,000 square miles) and complex as the bay is, it's been hard to find clear evidence whether it's getting better or worse amid weather-driven annual variations.  The scientists said their new analysis shows that pollution reductions made to date have improved water quality some, though still far from enough to declare the bay restored to health.

(Sandy Point State Park. 2009 Baltimore Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)

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