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State lawmakers seek federal Bay cleanup help

Lawmakers for Maryland and neighboring states are in Washington this week asking for more federal help in sticking to the strict "pollution diet" they've been put on for restoring the Chesapeake Bay.   They heard encouraging words, but got nothing concrete so far.

Members of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislators in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, met Thursday with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and with members of Congress. They were hoping to meet today with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

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With congressional leaders and the Obama administration locked in negotiations over how to cut federal spending to reduce the national debt, commission members didn't ask for massive new infusions of money to underwrite their cleanup efforts.  They did, however, make a pitch for a $30 million "innovative technology fund" to help find feasible alternative uses for the animal manure that's now spread on farm fields as fertilizer - and contributing to the bay's water quality problems.

Mostly, the state lawmakers urged administration and congressional representatives to hold the line on current funding for bay cleanup. They pointed to the need for continued funding of the $1 billion upgrade under way at the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant in Washington, the bay region's largest. The District of Columbia, and suburban Maryland and Virginia counties served by the plant are seeking $28.8 million in federal funds next year to help keep the costs to local ratepayers down. Without that federal contribution, they warned, the costs of the upgrade would drive up residents' utility bills even more.

Commission members did press EPA and USDA to promise bay region farmers that if they take prescribed steps to reduce polluted runoff from their fields and animal feedlots they won't face any additional regulation. They also insisted that federal facilities around the bay should be held to the same pollution reduction requirements the states have to meet now under the pollution diet, or total maximum daily load, established recently by EPA.

At their meeting at EPA headquarters Thursday, Jackson didn't offer much encouragement about funding, but did seem eager to work with the states and overcome the rifts with farmers and others over the pollution reductions required under the diet.

"We're losing resources overall as an agency and as a government," she reminded commission members. But she said the bay cleanup remains a top priority of President Obama.

"Let me assure you," Jackson said, "we remain committed even within a shrinking resource budget."

The EPA chief also expressed an eagerness to overcome what she called "tension" over the pollution reductions required under the EPA's bay restoration plan, or diet. The American Farm Bureau Federation has sued to overturn the plan, and the Republican-led House attempted to block funding for it earlier this year.

She pledged EPA would work with USDA to try "to break down what is becoming this wall of distrust" among farmers over what they need to do to comply with the cleanup plan.  She acknowledged that a sore point has been the failure of the EPA plan to specifically acknowledge the pollution-control measures farmers have taken voluntarily that weren't paid for with government funds. But she cautioned that the effectiveness of those and other "best management practices" for controlling polluted runoff need to verified, so farmers "don't waste time on what's not working."

Given the criticism of EPA on a variety of fronts lately and efforts on Capitol Hill to curtail its regulatory authority, the bay commission meeting with Jackson was unusually cordial, with commission members praising Jackson's agency for responding to earlier requests. At one point, Maryland state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles County, called it a "lovefest."

But Pennsylvania state Sen. Mike Brubaker, the commission's chairman and a Republican, said the panel has steered clear of partisan debate in seeking practical ways of advancing the bay cleanup.

The bay lovefest continued Thursday on Capitol Hill. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., announced to commission members that Maryland and Virginia representatives had formed a Congressional Chesapeake Bay Watershed Caucus to advocate for the cleanup. There's been an informal "task force" of bay region representatives for years, but Wittman said the creation of an official caucus would help raise the profile of bay issues in Congress.

Brubaker, the commission chairman, welcomed the news of the caucus. But in praising it he inadvertently signaled how challenged the bay cleanup has become in politically divided Washington.

Creation of the caucus comes two years, Brubaker noted, after President Obama issued his executive order calling the bay a national treasure and pledging federal leadership in restoring the degraded estuary. Since the president's order, Congress has failed to authorize new bay cleanup legislation, and the House voted to temporarily block EPA's funding to enforce its bay cleanup plan.

(Photos: Top, Chesapeake Bay bridge at sunset, by Doug Kapustin of Baltimore Sun; above, Lisa Jackson, AFP/Getty)

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