EPA finds Maryland mostly on track in Bay cleanup, but Pennsylvania lagging badly

Maryland mostly on track with bay cleanup, EPA says, but Pennsylvania lagging badly.

Maryland is mostly on track to do its part in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, but Pennsylvania is lagging badly, according to federal officials.

In reviewing states' bay restoration efforts, the Environmental Protection Agency found that Maryland is on course to reduce its share of the phosphorus and sediment fouling Chesapeake waters, particularly from farms and sewage treatment plants.

But the state is falling short in curbing nitrogen, the EPA said, in part because changes in farming practices are allowing more of that polluting nutrient to run off fields.

Federal officials also said efforts in Maryland to reduce polluted storm-water runoff from cities and suburbs are not moving fast enough to achieve the state's goals. More effort likewise appears needed to deal with worsening phosphorus pollution on the Eastern Shore, EPA said, where studies by the U.S. Geological Survey have reported excess use of poultry manure to fertilize farm fields.

“Marylanders can feel proud of the progress we’ve made toward cleaner water. But now the road gets steeper," said Alison Prost, Maryland director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "The toughest problem ahead may be polluted runoff from our cities and suburbs.”

While Gov. Larry Hogan and lawmakers agreed this year on legislation revising stormwater control efforts, Prost said it would help reduce polluted runoff to the bay "only if local officials carry it out.”

The legislation repealed the controversial mandate that Baltimore city and the state's nine largest counties charge a storm-water cleanup fee, which critics derided as a "rain tax." But while giving localities flexibiliy in how they pay for controlling runoff, the law requires them to provide a detailed accounting of what they're doing and how they're financing it.

Maryland and the other five states in the Chesapeake watershed, as well as the District of Columbia, are required by EPA to put enough measures in place by 2017 to achieve 60 percent of the pollution reductions needed to clean up the bay. They're mandated to get 100 percent in place by 2025.

While EPA generally approved of Maryland's efforts, federal officials warned Pennsylvania it was lagging in curbing nitrogen and sediment pollution and "substantially off track" in dealing with farm runoff. 

"It is not clear what mechanisms or strategies Pennsylvania will use," the EPA said, to get back on track by doubling the acreage of farmland regulating the amounts of fertilizer put down. Federal officials also questioned state efforts to get farmers to plant forested or grassy buffers along streams to soak up polluted runoff from their fields.

Moreover, EPA found Pennsylvania has made almost no progress toward reducing polluted stormwater runoff from its cities and suburbs.

The agency warned that if the state's bay cleanup efforts continue to fall short, federal regulators may impose tighter pollution discharge limits on municipal sewage plants, forcing them to invest in upgraded treatment. 

“It is past time for Pennsylvania to take meaningful actions that will accelerate pollution reduction," said William C. Baker, president of the Annapolis-based bay foundation. The state's shortcomings began before Gov. Tom Wolf's election last year, he said, and credited the current administration with acknowledging the need to "reboot" the state's bay cleanup efforts. 

But Baker urged EPA to keep the pressure on by spelling out what it will do if Pennsylviania continues to lag. 

"Unless there are consequences for failure," he said, "we are in danger of repeating the decades of failed Bay restoration efforts of the first three Bay agreements.”

UPDATE: A spokeswoman for John Quigley, Pennsylvania's secretary of environmental protection, acknowledged "an urgent need for renewed focus on the Chesapeake Bay." The EPA report showed what the state is doing well, she  said, but also highlighted "opportunities for improvement."

The Wolf administration is working to "re-engage all stakeholders and partners," the spokeswoman said, including local governments, watershed groups, farmers and businesses. 

"Pennsylvania recognizes the volume of work that that still needs to be done, and the size of the problem that the Wolf Administration has inherited," Quigley said through the spokeswoman. 

Over the past 30 years, Pennsylvania had pumped $4 billion in grants, loans and direct spending into bay restoration efforts, the spokeswoman noted. In that time, there have been reductions of 25 percent in phosphorus pollution, 6 percent in nitrogen and nearly 15 percent in sediment.

"But it is clearly not enough," she concluded.


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