Pennsylvania officials admit their state is behind in curbing Chesapeake pollution

Pennsylvania officials on Tuesday conceded to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and other state leaders in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that the commonwealth has not done its part to reduce pollution washing into waterways.

Patrick McDonnell, Pennsylvania’s secretary of environmental protection, said that will change as a target to restore Chesapeake ecosystems by 2025 approaches.

“We are committed and developing a plan that gets us to 2025,” he told the Chesapeake Executive Council, a group that oversees the federal Chesapeake Bay Program, at a meeting in Fells Point.

“We are clearly behind,” he said. “But we’ve taken that as an opportunity to double down.”

The promise came a week after Hogan publicly criticized Pennsylvania and New York for sending a deluge of debris and pollution down the Susquehanna River during recent flooding.

Hogan and McDonnell avoided trading barbs at the council’s annual meeting, which brings together the governors of the six bay watershed states, the mayor of Washington and Environmental Protection Agency officials. Both men said Tuesday’s meeting was productive, and that they hoped it would guide continued improvements in Chesapeake ecology.

“The fact that we have an open dialogue with our upstream neighbors is a positive first step,” Hogan said.

The Chesapeake has posted improving scores in recent years on report cards rating indicators such as underwater grass growth, dissolved oxygen levels and populations of rockfish and blue crabs. That progress has led environmentalists and scientists to declare that efforts of the state-federal bay program partnership are working.

But recently released data through the midpoint of a cleanup effort launched in 2010 show Pennsylvania is far from reaching goals for reducing nitrogen and sediment, and is also falling short of a goal for phosphorus reduction.

The data show Maryland and Virginia have missed goals in some areas, too — including targets to reduce the amount of nitrogen runoff coming from farms.

Many of the council’s members noted that those targets will become even harder to reach as climate change brings more storms and floods. Bay advocates are still waiting to see how big of a setback the bay will suffer after record July rainfall washed pollution down the Susquehanna and other rivers that feed the bay.

The executive council took one step Tuesday to help lessen the load of pollution entering waterways from farm fields. Members signed a directive in support of the federal farm bill pending on Capitol Hill and a handful of programs within it to help farmers plan and put in place practices that promote conservation and clean water and soil.

Trey Hill, a Kent County farmer invited to speak at the meeting, said such programs have had a significant impact in agriculture.

“We’ve been empowered to farm better,” he said. “I think we can continue down this path, and we can show the world that growing food sustainably with healthy farms and having a healthy environment for our children is possible.”

But with significant progress still to be made to reduce runoff from farms across the watershed, attendees acknowledged drastic efforts will be needed to meet the 2025 goals. Much of the progress so far in reducing pollutants has been achieved by upgrades to sewage treatment plants. More widespread improvements will be needed now.

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said he has faith the EPA will hold Pennsylvania, and all of the watershed jurisdictions, to meeting pollution reduction targets.

“It’s a very strong collaboration,” he said. “The EPA listens to what the states are saying, and Maryland absolutely has the opportunity to push EPA for more enforcement.”

If that doesn’t prove to be effective, Maryland is always exploring its legal options, he said. The state has already taken legal action to try to force EPA to crack down on other states’ air pollution.

“The best option is through collaboration and partnership,” he said.

The discussions were less confrontational than might have been expected given recent rhetoric from the governor and Comptroller Peter Franchot. After record July rainfall sent a surge of debris and trash into the Chesapeake, much of it through open Conowingo Dam floodgates, Hogan and Franchot accused Pennsylvania and New York of lagging in their responsibilities to help address bay cleanup.

“The upstream states — Pennsylvania and New York — need to step up and take responsibility for the debris and sediment that is pouring into our bay,” Hogan said at a Board of Public Works meeting last week.

In response, McDonnell called the remarks “careless and insensitive” because two people died in flooding in Central Pennsylvania. He said Tuesday that the focus at that time needed to be on protecting lives and property, but that going forward, the commonwealth would increase its attention to water quality.

William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said he was pleased to see attention focused on the pollutants that are invisible to most people, but impact the bay ecosystem every day, instead of on the more obvious surge of debris and trash that has recently filled waterways. And he said he was relieved to hear McDonnell “clearly and unequivocally” acknowledge that Pennsylvania is lagging in its cleanup efforts.

“That admission of how far behind they are, I have not heard so clearly before,” he said. “That is really important.”

New York officials had not yet publicly commented on Hogan’s criticisms until James Tierney, assistant commissioner for water resources with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, had a chance to speak at Tuesday’s meeting. He said the land in his state around the Susquehanna headwaters actually suffers from a dearth of the nutrients that plague the Chesapeake.

“If the quality of the water in the Chesapeake Bay were as good as the quality of the water when it leaves New York … the Chesapeake Bay would not be impaired,” he argued. But Tierney also said New York remains committed to the partnership and to the bay cleanup effort.

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