After being sued by environmental activists, federal and state officials yesterday announced a new get-tough policy for sewage treatment plants that don't meet pollution limits meant to protect the Chesapeake Bay.
Plants that spew unhealthy levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, which feed algae blooms and create low-oxygen "dead zones," will be fined up to $32,500 per day per violation, said Robert Summers, director of water management at the Maryland Department of the Environment.
"This is really the most concrete thing we can do to restore the Chesapeake Bay," Summers said. "This requires very stringent levels of sewage treatment."
The crackdown comes after the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation filed a lawsuit in November against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to try to force the federal government to pressure states to create strict nutrient pollution limits.
The EPA worked with the states in the bay watershed, including Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia, and in January the federal agency announced an agreement with them to set limits on the discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus.
Jon Capacasa, director of water protection in the EPA's Mid-Atlantic region, said the foundation's lawsuit was helpful in focusing attention on the need for pollution limits, although it was not the only reason for their creation.
"We agree with the bay foundation that we need to move forward with a concerted effort to place limits in wastewater permits for nutrient pollution," Capacasa said. "Their underlying request is what you see being fulfilled. They are very articulate advocates for the bay, and we have a common agenda."
The revised water quality standards in Maryland and the other states around the bay still need final approval from the EPA after a public-comment period.
Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, praised the Ehrlich administration's actions. "This is a very significant step," Coble said of the new pollution limits. "It's something that the Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been calling for for a number of years. It puts more teeth into bay protection, and we hope that they put the limits in place as rapidly as possible."
Maryland's proposed limits say that large sewage treatment plants can emit no more than 4 milligrams per liter of nitrogen or 0.3 milligrams per liter of phosphorus. The state has in the past listed these same levels as "goals," but never fined the plants when they failed as the state now plans to do, and today only two of the state's 66 large plants meet the goals.
To pay for plant improvements, the state will distribute $1 billion by 2011 as part of the Ehrlich administration's "flush tax" initiative, officially known as the Bay Restoration Fund, Summers said.
The plants, which are owned by local governments, won't be required to meet the limits immediately. Instead, as the state renews the plants' permits as part of a process that is repeated every five years, state officials will insert the requirements into the permits.