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Low-key Chesapeake Bay summit draws few leaders

Laws and LegislationEnvironmental PollutionU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyEcosystemsExecutive Branch

This could well be a winter of discontent for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

Only a few of the leaders of the 30-year effort are expected to show up in Washington Thursday for an annual review of how it's going. While Gov. Martin O'Malley will be there, his counterparts from Virginia and Pennsylvania will not. Nor will the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

O'Malley is slated to take the helm of the council guiding the effort, amid signs of progress but also growing wariness among some leaders about the costs of complying with the bay pollution "diet" imposed on the states by the Obama administration.

"We're not done," O'Malley said in an interview on the eve of the meeting. While acknowledging the difficulties and reluctance of some to keep pressing on the bay cleanup, he said, "we're moving up a down escalator."

Noting the region's growing population, he said, "we're going to have to take actions at a greater pace" to deal with the additional pollution.

Though nutrient and sediment pollution fouling the bay has been reduced over the past 30 years, more than half the rivers and streams in the six-state watershed are in poor condition, and less than a third of the estuary's water is clean, according to a report card released last week by the EPA.

The low-key, mostly closed-door summit at the National Arboretum had been planned to feature signing of a new restoration agreement among the six bay watershed states, the District of Columbia and the EPA. It would be the fourth such pact in the past 30 years.

But that's been put off until spring, with the federal shutdown in October given as one reason. Another may be disagreement among the states over what more they're willing to do.

According to documents posted online, the latest draft of the pact has dropped a long-standing pledge to reduce the toxic chemicals impairing three-fourths of the bay's waters. A glancing mention of the impacts of climate change now calls for coping with "changing environmental conditions."

And the draft includes a provision that any state may opt out of anything that's not specifically required by federal law or the pollution diet.

An EPA spokeswoman would not let any agency officials answer questions about the meeting. Instead, she released a statement attributed to the agency's deputy administrator, Robert Perciasepe, calling the agreement "the next step in our decades-long collaboration."

Perciasepe, a former Maryland environment secretary, will represent the EPA at the meeting because Administrator Gina McCarthy is on an official visit to China, said Andra Belknap, assistant press secretary.

The text of the draft agreement hints at why it's more narrowly drawn. The Chesapeake partnership "cannot address every issue at once." Instead, it adds that "progress must be made in a strategic manner, focusing on efforts that will achieve the greatest results."

The pollution "diet" set three years ago by EPA has complicated the traditionally voluntary, cooperative relationship between the states and the federal government, said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

"The tensions of the stakeholders have increased, and the more you try to do, the more difficult it becomes," said Swanson, whose group represents lawmakers in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

While the EPA has warned it could take action against any state that fails to meet its pollution reduction targets, environmental groups, farming interests and builders have shown a willingness to take the EPA and others to court to challenge aspects of the cleanup.

Former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, who signed the first bay pact for Maryland and pushed through pioneering legislation to limit waterfront development, said he thought the cleanup would be further along by now, but he's encouraged by recent signs of progress.

But some activists worry that the low-key meeting Thursday is a sign that bay cleanup "fatigue" may be setting in.

"I think it just shows how the bloom is off the rose," said Gerald Winegrad, a former Maryland state senator from Annapolis who was present for the signing of the first bay agreement in December 1983.

Most if not all the pollution reductions measured have come from upgrading the state's sewage treatment plants, he said, while efforts to curb runoff from farms, cities and suburbs have been compromised or delayed. Officials say farmers are taking conservation measures, but it may take decades for them to show up in streams and rivers.

"The problem is, the second half of anything is always harder than the first half," said William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Annapolis-based environmental group. "There are huge challenges ahead."

Though many say Maryland has been a cleanup leader, even O'Malley faces challenges. Opposition from farmers prompted the state recently to postpone regulations promised two years ago aimed at curtailing runoff of poultry manure from farm fields. Politicians of both parties also have called for changes or repeal of a law requiring property owners in Baltimore and the state's nine largest counties pay fees to treat stormwater runoff, derided by critics as a tax on rain.

Others question omission of significant issues, such as the buildup of nutrient-laden sediment behind Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River.

Many local officials in Maryland are worried that even with the stormwater fees, they lack the money to do everything required of them to clean up the bay. Maryland farmers, meanwhile, would like to hold off any more regulation of them, at least until a scheduled reassessment in 2017 of the cleanup efforts.

O'Malley said he believes the agreement should address toxic pollution, climate change and the Conowingo Dam. And while he said he was willing to continue discussing how best to clean up the bay with those questioning initiatives to tackle stormwater and farm runoff, there was no room to take a pause, and Maryland can't wait for other states to adopt similar measures.

"If we stop leading," he said, "the bay dies and dies quickly."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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Laws and LegislationEnvironmental PollutionU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyEcosystemsExecutive Branch
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