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EPA finds progress, shortfalls in Bay cleanup effort

States mostly on track with pollution reductions, agency says, but Pennsylvania seriously behind

Tim Wheeler

6:39 AM EDT, June 27, 2014

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While Maryland and most other Chesapeake Bay states are making decent progress in reducing pollution fouling the estuary, Pennsylvania is "substantially off track" and will receive additional federal help and backup action if necessary, the Environmental Protection Agency reported Thursday.

In a review of how all six bay states and the District of Columbia are doing in meeting their federally mandated cleanup targets, the EPA downgraded its rating of Pennsylvania's performance after finding the state fell short of meeting most of its pollution reduction targets for 2013 and appears unlikely to achieve its next "milestone" goals unless efforts are intensified.

"Overall we've seen progress," Shawn Garvin, EPA's Mid-Atlantic regional administrator said in a telephone conference call with reporters assessing the multi-state restoration effort. But he said that "there are some sectors (where) we will need to see some acceleration in progress to keep us on pace."

Five of the seven jurisdictions met all of their pollution reduction targets for 2013, he said, with Pennsylvania and Delaware the two laggards. All states have been given cleanup "milestones" to hit every two years, and are expected to have taken enough steps by 2017 to achieve 60 percent of the pollution reductions needed to restore the bay, with the rest due by 2025.

Maryland exceeded its 2013 targets for reducing nutrient and sediment pollution, the EPA said. The state has made "enough progress" toward meeting its interim 2017 goals, agency officials said, even though it has failed so far to put in place all promised measures to curb farm runoff and storm-water pollution.

Maryland officials had pledged to adopt a new regulation limiting the use of animal manure to fertilize fields that already have high levels of phosphorus in their soils. But officials have repeatedly delayed acting in the face of objections from farmers and the poultry industry. State officials say they still plan to adopt the rule by the end of the year, after completing a study of its economic impact on chicken growers and processors.

The state also has lagged in issuing permits to its largest counties requiring reductions in polluted runoff from streets, parking lots and buildings.  EPA officials said they had been assured those new requirements would be in place in all affected communities later this year.

All states came up at least a little short in some respect, but Pennsylvania and Delaware appeared significantly behind, according to EPA's assessments.

Delaware has submitted a cleanup plan for the next two years that will make up its shortcomings in curbing phosphorus and sediment, EPA said, though the state still lags significantly in reducing nitrogen from farm runoff and wastewater treatment.

Pennsylvania, meanwhile, reduced phosphorus enough by last year, but fell short in nitrogen and sediment. Its plan for the next two years puts the state even farther behind on reducing nitrogen, EPA said, shy by nearly 6 million pounds, or about a third below its goal for 2017.

The EPA downgraded the state's efforts to curb farm pollution and storm-water runoff, saying they had fallen into the category designated for backstop action by the federal agency. 

EPA officials had warned a few years ago that states failing to meet cleanup goals could face loss of federal funds, development curbs or takeover of their ability to permit new growth. But agency officials took a softer line Thursday, saying that Pennsylvania was handicapped by the proliferation of small farms and small communities it has to deal with.

Garvin said Pennsylvania has the biggest challenge of any of the bay states in reducing nitrogen, since it alone accounts for nearly half of that particular nutrient fouling the Chesapeake. He pledged to work with Pennsylvania to upgrade its effort, providing more federal funding and technical assistance.

"Each of the bay jurisdictions must do better if they are to achieve their 2017 and 2025 goals," said William C. Baker, Chesapeake Bay Foundation president.  The Annapolis-based environmental group recently offered its own assessments of states' performance, which tracked closely with EPA's.

Baker added that "clearly, Pennsylvania has been given a failing grade" by EPA. "The Commonwealth must demonstrate leadership immediately to improve its pollution reduction efforts," he said.