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Chesapeake Bay cleanup on track, officials say

The multistate effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay is on track to meet its latest timetable for cleaning up the ailing estuary, even though states failed to achieve all the short-term pollution reduction goals they set for themselves three years ago, officials said Monday.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said Maryland and the other five states that drain into the bay, as well as the District of Columbia and the federal government, have all made "extraordinary progress" the past two years in accelerating their cleanup efforts.

"Most, if not all, the signs are pointing in the right direction," Jackson said at a meeting to review bay restoration work, held this year at Gunston Hall in Northern Virginia. "If this were a race, we would hit the accelerator because we know we're on the right path."

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley agreed that "the degree and the movement that we've made over the past five years … is really remarkable."

Environmentalists joined in praising the progress to date but pointed out that Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia had all missed at least a few of the cleanup goals they'd set for themselves, even while meeting or exceeding many others.

"There are many successes that we should be happy about today, but there are many shortfalls," said Hilary Harp Falk, director of Choose Clean Water, a coalition of the region's environmental groups. "And we need to stay the course in order to clean the rivers and streams that flow to the Chesapeake Bay."

An analysis by Falk's group and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found that Maryland made gains in restoring wetlands, getting farmers to plant pollution-absorbing cover crops and upgrading sewage plants. The state fell short in retrofitting urban storm drains and upgrading or replacing household septic systems leaking pollution into the bay.

State officials counter that they met their nutrient pollution-reduction targets by shifting efforts to make up for those shortfalls.

Bay states have pledged to have enough cleanup measures in place by 2025 to restore the bay's water quality, and to have 60 percent of the needed steps taken five years from now.

The EPA's Jackson said that while the bay still has a long way to go to recover its vitality, she was encouraged after hearing reports from her staff and state officials. They ticked off a list of recent accomplishments, including restoring nearly 3,800 acres of wetlands, reopening 148 miles of streams for fish to spawn and planting trees along 240 miles of shoreline.

Based on computer modeling, officials said those and other steps taken over the past three years had reduced the torrent of nutrients and sediment fouling the bay from inadequately treated sewage, fertilizer runoff and air pollution. Nitrogen alone declined by nearly 16 percent, they estimated.

Despite those efforts, the bay's water quality declined last year, with the levels of dissolved oxygen for fish, crabs and shellfish to breathe dropping and the water murkier than it's been in years. Officials blamed it on extraordinarily rainy weather, including two tropical storms in late summer, washing more mud and pollution than normal off the land into the rivers that feed the Chesapeake.

With all the bay states struggling to pay for costly retrofits of storm drains in older communities, much of the meeting was devoted to discussing the promise — and pitfalls — of allowing local governments and sewage plant operators to pay others to reduce comparable amounts of nutrient pollution. Pennsylvania and Virginia already have launched nutrient "trading" programs in which polluters can buy "credits" representing pollution reductions made elsewhere, often by farmers taking steps to curb fertilizer and soil runoff from their fields. Maryland is developing a similar program.

"We have economic challenges we have to keep in mind," said Pennsylvania's secretary of environmental protection, Michael Krancer, who noted that studies have shown that cleanup costs can be reduced significantly by allowing such "market-based" arrangements.

Chris Pyke, chairman of a panel of scientists and other technical experts advising the cleanup, acknowledged the potential of pollution trading to cut costs drastically. But he cautioned that the effectiveness of the states' trading policies has yet to be demonstrated, and urged more study.

Others urged the states to make sure that such trading programs don't sacrifice water quality in one place to improve it elsewhere, and to hold all parties accountable for showing that the paid-for reductions actually take place and are working.

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