The Environmental Protection Agency proposed Friday a tough-love pollution "diet" for the Chesapeake Bay, threatening to impose stringent new federal mandates in most states in the watershed unless they beef up their own cleanup plans.
The proposal, the most ambitious developed by the federal government, calls for sweeping reductions in sewage discharges and in polluted runoff from farms, cities and suburbs across the six-state watershed. It's expected to require costly upgrades of sewage treatment plants, extensive retrofits of storm drains and tighter controls on farmers' use of animal manure to fertilize crops.
It also could be the stiffest test yet for the states' two-year-old vow to ratchet up the dragging bay cleanup — and for the Obama administration's pledge to assert federal leadership over it.
"This is a roadmap to help accelerate restoration of the bay," said Jon Capacasa, the EPA's chief of water protection for the Mid-Atlantic region. Though there are no estimates on what the extra cleanup effort might cost, he noted that President Barack Obama called for it in an executive order last year, and that it's required by federal law and a court order.
The agency's action drew praise from environmental groups, who said it was long overdue after bay states had repeatedly failed to meet the cleanup deadlines they set since the 1980s. But the proposal move raised hackles in states such as Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, where federal regulators found "serious deficiencies" in plans for reducing pollution.
"The way I see it, three decades of failed, voluntary programs may be coming to an end," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "This is the first time EPA has said they are going to hold the states accountable ... to put the bay back in balance."
The EPA draft diet calls for 25 percent reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution across the watershed and at least 16 percent reduction in sediment fouling the bay's waters. It imposes pollution caps on every river feeding into the Chesapeake, nearly all of which are now deemed unfit for drinking water, swimming or fishing.
Nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage, fertilizer and vehicle and power plant emissions feed algae blooms that rob the water of oxygen that fish need to breathe. Sediment harms oysters, fish and underwater vegetation.
The EPA praised cleanup plans from Maryland and the District of Columbia as the "most substantive" of the lot, needing only "minor" improvements to meet federal requirements. But the agency found significant flaws in the plans of other watershed states, including New York's and Delaware's, saying they failed to propose enough pollution reductions.
The agency laid out steps it would take if the states don't offer to do more on their own. Among the possible federal actions: requiring costly new upgrades of sewage treatment plants, mandating expensive retrofits of storm drains and imposing tighter regulation of farms raising animals. None of those is politically popular, and they drew touchy reactions from state officials.
"All the wheels come off the cart if that happens," said Scott Mandirola, West Virginia's director of water and wastewater management. "If this is something to just get everybody back to the table, that's one thing. But if not, man, the repercussions could be bad."
Pennsylvania's secretary of environmental protection, John Hanger, warned that EPA's "threats" could backfire and kill what good will exists there for cleaning up a bay outside state borders. The Susquehanna River supplies half the fresh water entering the bay, and is a major source of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.
Hanger said the state has just gone through a bruising court battle with its towns and cities to get them to improve their sewage treatment plants.
"They are raising sewer rates in communities where people are hard-pressed to pay higher rates," Hanger said of Pennsylvania's local officials. "It's just not helpful for EPA to come along and say, 'Oh, by the way, we may reopen those permits and lower [pollution] limits even more.' "
Virginia's secretary of natural resources, Doug Domenech, released a statement saying the administration was "deeply disappointed" that the EPA didn't accept the state's bay cleanup proposals, which relied heavily on allowing localities, developers and farmers to buy and sell pollution "credits."
EPA officials played down the prospects of conflict, saying they're committed to helping the states develop stronger pollution-reduction measures.
"Everybody ... is sensitive to the economic times, and the fact this is not going to be easy, cheap or quick," said Shawn Garvin, the EPA's Mid-Atlantic regional administrator. "But that should not be the reason we do not set out the roadmap for how we're going to get there. We're not looking to have all these practices in place by next year."
State and federal officials agreed two years ago to put in place by 2025 all the pollution control measures needed to restore the bay's water quality, and to have 60 percent of them in place by 2017.
The O'Malley administration, pointing to Maryland's historical leadership among bay states in cleanup efforts, vowed to do its part by 2020, and to get 70 percent of the control measures in place in the next seven years.
While finding little fault with Maryland's cleanup plan, EPA officials did note that the state failed to propose enough reductions in pollutants in several rivers, including the Susquehanna, Patuxent and Choptank. And federal regulators said that none of the states, Maryland included, offered enough details on where they would get the funds to upgrade treatment plants and storm drains, or on what new pollution measures might be proposed.
Public comment is being sought over the next 45 days on both the EPA's "diet" and on the states' plans.
States have until Nov. 29 to revise their cleanup plans, and the EPA has said it will issue its final directions for reducing bay pollution by Dec. 31.
State officials have complained that the process has been too rushed. But EPA officials note that bay state governors, some no longer in office, agreed to this timetable two years ago.