Federal officials said Wednesday they have given marching orders to Maryland and other states that drain into the Chesapeake Bay to come up with detailed plans for reducing pollution plaguing the estuary, warning that states face development shutdowns or other as-yet unstated consequences if the water fails to get cleaner.
At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency made the cleanup goal potentially easier to reach, saying new analysis indicates pollution doesn't need to be curbed as much as previously thought to shrink the "dead zone" in the bay that starves fish, crabs and oysters every summer of the oxygen they need to breathe.
J. Charles Fox, the Environmental Protection Agency's senior adviser on the bay, said letters sent this week to the states and the District of Columbia laying out his agency's expectations of them are the first installment in "a new era of federal leadership" in trying to restore the Chesapeake.
"We are trying to improve and strengthen all water pollution programs throughout the watershed and secure a much greater degree of accountability from all of them," Fox said in a telephone conference call with reporters.
The action comes in response to an executive order by President Barack Obama last spring directing federal agencies to play a more active role in the 26-year-old bay cleanup effort, which has repeatedly blown self-imposed deadlines for reducing pollution from sewage plants, farms, and urban and suburban lands. In May, the six states, the District of Columbia and federal government set 2025 as their new cleanup deadline, but pledged to be more accountable by laying out a series of short-term "milestones" every two years. The other states in the watershed are Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York.
On Monday, the EPA is scheduled to unveil a draft plan for ramping up federal pressure - and possibly funding - to accelerate the cleanup effort. Fox said his agency is eyeing an expansion of some environmental regulations to "raise the floor" on major sources of pollution fouling the bay, particularly poultry and other livestock farming and development.
Environmentalists welcomed the EPA's action, though they said much still depends on what sanctions the federal government is willing to impose if states fail to clean up. Beth McGee, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the agency's requirements are "precedent-setting."
Spokesmen for the building industry, however, complained that new development produces only a tiny fraction of the pollution fouling the bay.
"Is it going to hurt this industry? Oh, yeah, big time," said John E. Kortecamp, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "Is it going to have any effect on cleaning up the bay? No, it is not."
But the EPA's Fox said polluted runoff from urban and suburban lands is growing and the bay can't be cleaned up without reducing it.
In the letters, EPA officials are directing states to identify shortcomings in their existing pollution-control efforts and spell out how they would close those gaps with more rules, funding or both. Within two years, state officials also must lay out what each county, city and town needs to do to clean up its portion of the watershed. In planning those curbs, the EPA said, states must offset any increased pollution from future population growth and development.
Finally, by 2017, states and the District must have controls in place to remove 60 percent of the pollution needed to shrink the dead zone.
Federal officials plan to scrutinize states' plans, and if they don't measure up, then the EPA may impose "consequences." The agency says it will spell those out later, but they may include stricter limits on sewage plants or industries, bans on new or expanded discharges in already polluted waters or withholding federal funds.
Meanwhile, the agency informed states in a separate letter this week that cleanup "targets" for the bay had been adjusted upward by as much as 20 percent. The bay is suffering from a glut of plant nutrients - nitrogen and phosphorus - getting into the water, where they feed massive growths of algae. Those floating mats of tiny aquatic plants suck the oxygen out of the water when they die and sink to the bottom to decompose.
New computer analysis indicates the Chesapeake's waters can be revived if the amount of nitrogen getting into rivers is reduced to 200 million pounds a year overall, or 25 million pounds more than previously set. Phosphorus needs to be limited to 15 million pounds, an increase of roughly 2.5 million pounds, the EPA said.
Officials cautioned that the new targets are preliminary and likely to be adjusted in the coming year as the EPA prepares a strict pollution "diet" for the bay, parsing out pollution limits for each river feeding into the bay. They also warned that the higher targets may not be that much easier to reach.
Nevertheless, one critic accused federal officials of undermining the effort to improve the bay.
"At this rate of backsliding, they can declare the bay saved by the spring, without reducing a pound of pollution," said Howard Ernst, a political scientist at the Naval Academy in Annapolis and author of two books critiquing the bay cleanup's lack of progress.