An Environmental Protection Agency spokesman now says federal regulators will indeed hold Maryland and other Chesapeake Bay states accountable if they fail to achieve the interim cleanup goals they announced in May.
The agency sent states and the District of Columbia a letter outlining eight different possible sanctions if they don't fulfill their bay restoration obligations, including blocking needed permits for new or existing businesses or municipal sewage treatment plants.
Environmental activists took Garvin's remark - made in a telephone press conference -- to mean that EPA would only begin threatening sanctions sometime in the future, but did not intend to hold states accountable for reaching their current two-year goals. As I reported in the Baltimore Sun on Wednesday, they questioned the agency's resolve to change the 26-year cleanup's troubled history of missed goals and blown deadlines.
After that story appeared, EPA spokesman David Sternberg called and emailed to say that Garvin only meant that federal officials would not pass judgment now on whether the state's goals themselves are adequate to make cleanup progress.
The letter EPA sent actually spells out, Sternberg said, that "the jurisdictions are now accountable for meeting the two-year milestones, which includes those that they have committed to achieve by 2011."
So activists, who were listening in on the telephone call EPA officials held with journalists, may have unfairly blistered the agency in this case for giving the states another free pass.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation president William Baker said yesterday he's skeptical - not for what it says it'll do - but based on the agency's repeated unwilingness to challenge states for issuing permits that he believes let industries and sewage plants pollute rivers and the bay.
EPA officials counter that the past doesn't dictate the future, and they're ready and willing to confront states now for shortcomings - though they hope they won't have to.
As they say, time will tell. But at least now we know the clock is already ticking.