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Do 'new, improved' Bay cleanup plans measure up?

Most of the "final" Chesapeake Bay cleanup plans due from watershed states are in, and one of them already is drawing mixed reviews about whether it's filled the gaping holes seen three months ago in an earlier draft.

Two key states, though, remain to be heard from - Maryland, whose officials claimed they had submitted the best of all the states' draft cleanup plans in September, and New York, whose officials questioned the legal and scientific basis for requiring that state to join in the push to accelerate the bay restoration effort.

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The "watershed implementation plans" due from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, West Virginia, New York and the District of Columbia are to be used by the Environmental Protection Agency in setting a "pollution diet" for the bay that's supposed to restore the estuary's degraded waters over the next 15 years or so.  EPA found serious deficiencies in most of the draft plans submitted in September.

Virginia submitted on Monday what its natural resources secretary called a "good, amended plan" for reducing bay pollution that he contended averts the need for a federal crackdown on sewage plants and farms in the Old Dominion.  Secretary Douglas W. Domenech estimated the accelerated cleanup effort would cost more than $7 billion over the next 15 years.

But environmentalists don't think it goes far enough, while farmers and builders are worried it's demanding too much of them.

Virginia's latest plan calls for more reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage treatment plants, but still relies heavily on voluntary incentives for farmers to curb pollution washing off their fields.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said it was encouraged by the state's proposal to upgrade sewage treatment in the James River, but said the farm runoff provisions were still weak.

"Unlike the clear commitments to reductions from the wastewater sector, Virginia has not provided the same reasonable assurances from the agriculture sector," Ann F. Jennings, the foundation's Virginia executive director, said in a statement.

The Center for Progressive Reform in Washington called Virginia's latest effort "a significant improvement," but said it still lacks crucial details on costs and where the state plans to get the needed funding.  The group also questioned the state's reliance on "nutrient trading" to reduce pollution, saying there aren't adequate safeguards spelled out to make sure it result in real improvements in water quality.

Rex Springston of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that officials with the Virginia Farm Bureau and home builders were lukewarm in their reactions to the state's new cleanup plan.

And Scott Harper of the Virginian-Pilot reports that an EPA official called the state's 133-page plan "significantly improved," but withheld judgment on whether it was better enough to avoid any federal "backstop" actions to tighten regulation of sewage plants or farms.

Virginia's Natural Resources Secretary Douglas W. Domenech suggested in a cover letter that the state may yet propose more pollution reductions, even as he complained of "massive new unfunded mandates" being imposed "during the worst economy in generations."  A last-minute estimate provided by EPA from its computer model of bay pollution suggested the state may still have to reduce another million pounds of nitrogen, he noted.

Even without further measures, Domenech estimated the pollution reductions detailed would cost more than $7 billion.   Gov. Robert F. McDonnell is proposing to increase funding for sewage plant upgrades by $36.4 million "as a show of good faith," the natural resources secretary wrote.  But he added that the federal government would need to fill in the funding gaps.

(Marshyhope Creek, 1995 Baltimore Sun photo by Chien Chi Chang)

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