The Obama administration is to unveil today its plan for taking control of the lagging Chesapeake Bay cleanup, amid growing grumbling from developers, farmers and even state officials that Washington is overreaching in what has until recently been a largely cooperative effort among the bay states.
Though officials weren't saying much prior to the release of the draft strategy, it's expected to call for expanded federal regulation of large poultry and livestock farms, as well as tighter controls on pollution washing off urban and suburban development.
"We are at this point considering expanding some of our regulatory programs," J. Charles Fox, the Environmental Protection Agency's senior adviser for the bay, said during a telephone conference call last week with reporters. The aim, he added, is "to raise the floor for a range of major sources of pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, so we can help the states achieve their goals."
But the prospect of expanded federal regulation, originally floated in September, has aroused farming and building interests, who complain they're being unfairly blamed for much of the bay's woes.
"Why should we get tagged by having our industry shut down because somebody else is not meeting their goals?" asked Katie Maloney, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Builders Association.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, meanwhile, has voiced concerns that Maryland's poultry industry may be hurt if the state's chicken growers - clustered mainly on the rural Eastern Shore - are subject to stricter federal regulation than are farmers in other parts of the country.
In a written response to federal ideas aired in September for jump-starting the bay cleanup, the O'Malley administration says it supports increased federal involvement in the restoration effort, but only if it comes with more federal funds to pay for it.
"We want to avoid a repeat of the No Child Left Behind Program," says the state's letter, signed by Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin. The federal No Child Left Behind law requires states to meet new standards for educating children in public schools, but state officials have complained of being forced to meet federal mandates without any resources offered to help them.
The O'Malley administration also expressed its opposition to subjecting any more chicken farms in Maryland to federal regulation, arguing that states should be given flexibility to try reducing polluted runoff from those farms.
The poultry industry is an important economic engine for the state, particularly on the rural Eastern Shore. Maryland growers produced nearly 300 million chickens in 2007 worth more than $500 million.
Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said the tone of what he's seen from the federal agencies so far "sort of comes across like a federal takeover" of the bay restoration effort.
"And I don't think that's going to work," he said. Boesch said the federal plans he's seen so far mostly ignore the role of states in restoring the bay - a sore subject for Maryland officials, who believe they've been in the forefront of the effort, even if they have failed repeatedly to meet cleanup goals since it began 26 years ago.
"Give us money, hold us accountable, let us get the job done," Boesch said was the message from Maryland officials.
The prospect of greater federal involvement in the bay restoration was widely applauded last May when President Barack Obama issued an executive order directing environmental agency heads to take the lead in accelerating the cleanup effort. O'Malley was among the chorus of state leaders who praised Obama's move during the annual bay restoration summit at Mount Vernon in Virginia.
"They're certainly singing a different tune than they did last spring, when they stood on the shores of Potomac and pledged to work together and welcomed federal government's new role in this," said Howard Ernst, a political scientist at the Naval Academy and author of two critiques of the bay restoration's failings. But, Ernst said, "There's a reason the states didn't do these things voluntarily over the last 27 years. They're hard to do."
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has assured O'Malley that federal officials intend to work closely with the states. She also has said her agency would hold off any bay-only regulations if states can show they're getting the needed pollution reduction on their own.
"Maryland has not been singled out," said David Sternberg, a spokesman in EPA's Mid-Atlantic regional office in Philadelphia. Although nearly 500 large chicken farms in the state were prompted to apply for federal pollution-discharge permits because of the size of their operations, Sternberg said, hundreds of growers in neighboring states have been prodded to get federal permits as well. The permits subject those farms to government inspection and requirements that they take additional steps to prevent chicken waste from getting into nearby ditches, streams or ponds.
Some contend that stricter pollution controls may well be necessary in the bay watershed, which stretches from New York to Virginia and West Virginia, than in other parts of the country.
"The question is what do we need to do to restore this resource," said Roy Hoagland, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "It's not a question of consistency for consistency's sake. Yes, we may have to have farmers with more restrictive regulations. Yes we may have more development regulations."Hoagland and others say more federal funding would help, as would more federal regulation and oversight of the states. But the key to making real progress in restoring the bay, they say, is whether the EPA specifies stiff sanctions the states will face if they miss more cleanup deadlines or fail to achieve the pollution reductions expected. Those "consequences," which may include withholding federal funds or blocking new development, won't be spelled out until later this year, officials have said.
Some hope that in addition to more funding, Congress will give the EPA greater legal authority in directing the restoration. That's what a bill crafted by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin would do. It is scheduled for its first hearing today before a Senate subcommittee that the Maryland Democrat heads.
"This bill represents so much a tipping point for the bay program and for the potential to deliver clean water," said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state lawmakers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia. "One of the roles of the federal government is to intervene on issues that are interstate. This is clearly interstate."
"What they really need to do is hold the states' feet to the fire," said Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform and a professor at the University of Maryland law school.