The head of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program stepped back from strict enforcement of 2025 pollution goals for the Chesapeake Bay Friday, calling the technical targets “an aspiration” and not an enforceable deadline.
The comments by program Director Dana Aunkst near the end of a two-day conference in Annapolis sparked criticism from state officials and outrage from several environmental groups who said the comments represent the Trump administration’s retreat from the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort.
States in the bay watershed are supposed to have measures in place by 2025 that will get them to pollution reduction goals — the total daily maximum load, or TMDL — under targets set by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010.
But in discussing what happens after that date, Aunkst told those attending the Chesapeake Bay Commission meeting that the 2025 target is not a deadline. He said the 2010 targets only inform regulatory decisions.
“The TMDL itself is not enforceable,” he said.
The TMDL specified what pollution reductions necessary to restore the bay and is considered is a “keystone commitment” under President Barack Obama’s executive order to restore and protect the bay.
Lee Currey, director of the Water and Science Administration in the Maryland Department of the Environment, called on the EPA to enforce the limits and cited the $5 billion commitment under Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to reaching the goals.
“The federally approved Bay TMDL includes a range of steps that the U.S. EPA can take to hold all states accountable, and Maryland expects the EPA to use all the tools at its disposal to do just that in the agreed-upon 2025 timeframe,” Currey said in a statement released by an agency spokesman.
Aunkst was appointed to head the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Program in December 2018. He worked for 33 years in private industry and local and state government, including the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Under the EPA goals, the bay watershed has a maximum limit of 185.9 million pounds of nitrogen a year, 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus and 6.45 billion pounds of sediment. That requires reductions ranging from 20% to 25 percent for each pollutant.
Bay Commission Director Ann Swanson said those figures were set on the requirements of living resources such as underwater grass, fish, crabs, oysters and even benthic worms.
Environmental groups were quick to condemn Aunkst’s statement. Will Baker, president of the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Foundation, called it another sign that President Donald Trump’s administration is retreating from the cleanup effort.
“For the head of EPA’s Bay Program to say pollutions limits designed to save the bay are merely aspirational and not legally enforceable should put fear in the hearts of all who care about clean water,” Baker said in a prepared statement. “The Clean Water Act requires that EPA set limits on pollution entering local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay. In addition, a federal court has held that state plans developed to implement the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint must have reasonable assurance that they will succeed.”
The Maryland League of Conservation Voters released a statement saying the EPA was abdicating its responsibility by treating the TMDL as “aspirational.”
The Chesapeake Bay Commission was meeting in Annapolis to discuss progress toward 2025 goad and funding for phase three Watershed Implementation Plans. It will meet again in May in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley and County Executive Steuart Pittman presented at the start of the meeting, talking about what steps they have taken on the local level to help the bay.
Both are working with state Sen. Sarah Elfreth to create a resiliency financing authority, similar to a stadium authority, to help pay for the tens of millions of dollars of work necessary to prevent flooding and progress toward Chesapeake Bay restoration. The General Assembly returns to Annapolis on Wednesday.
The plan to protect City Dock from flooding will be presented to the Annapolis City Council on Jan. 14. The $50 million plan includes raising land around City Dock up six feet, creating a flood barrier, public space and a filtration system.
Elfreth said a bill is being drafted that would allow local jurisdictions to create such an authority, not just in Anne Arundel County.
“Every jurisdiction kind of has their unique challenges and we want to empower and enable them to address them effectively,” she said.
Elfreth said a financing authority is needed because Marylanders are seeing the effects of climate change more rapidly than anticipated, the burden for making improvements falls on smaller governments with smaller budgets and the cost of resiliency projects can be high, as it is for City Dock, so creative funding is needed.