Targeting a big source of the bay's pollution

The Baltimore Sun

The Chesapeake region's largest wastewater treatment facility - Washington, D.C.'s Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant - is finally getting the attention it deserves. Congressional leaders have called hearings to investigate the bay's largest source of harmful nutrient pollution.

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority has made great strides to initially address reducing pollution at Blue Plains, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is finally requiring the plant to do more. But the primary issue facing the water and sewer authority, Congress and ultimately the ratepayers is costly funding. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be needed to bring Blue Plains into compliance with the new EPA permit, and the states and the district cannot afford this huge undertaking on their own. Federal assistance will therefore be crucial.

Upgrading outdated technology at Blue Plains could prevent as much as 4 million pounds of nitrogen pollution a year from reaching the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. That's a lot of nitrogen. Nitrogen is one of the main nutrients polluting the bay. In large amounts, it stimulates devastating algal blooms that create oxygen-depleted "dead zones" where nothing can survive.

Because of the facility's immense size, upgrading Blue Plains represents the single largest potential baywide gain in reducing nutrients. The plant serves more than 2 million people in the district, Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia, handling nearly one-fifth of the total flow of wastewater into the bay. Because Blue Plains handles such a large volume of wastewater, even small improvements in nitrogen removal are magnified many times over, compared with facilities in other jurisdictions that are smaller and handle a fraction of the amount. In fact, the benefit of upgrading Blue Plains is comparable to improving all of Maryland's 86 significant plants, or Virginia's 124.

For years, improving Blue Plains has been a top priority of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a tristate legislative authority representing the General Assemblies of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. (The District of Columbia is a fellow partner of the commission through the Chesapeake Bay Program, and like the commission has a seat on the Chesapeake Executive Council.) If we can ask small communities in Pennsylvania's northern tier to achieve its nutrient reduction goals for the bay (which we are doing), we should expect no less from our nation's capital and the bay's largest nitrogen source.

The key will be finding needed funding. Members of the U.S. House and Senate Bay Congressional Delegation have requested more than $10 million for Blue Plains. Today, commission members will be visiting with our local members of Congress during our quarterly meeting in D.C., where we will further stress the vital role upgrading Blue Plains plays in restoring the Chesapeake Bay.

Congress seems to be listening. We hope that will translate into a willingness for the federal government to pay its fair share.

Arthur D. Hershey is chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission and a member of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. His e-mail is

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