MD sees Bay cleanup costing $7.5 billion by 2017

Chesapeake Bay Bridge at sunset
(Doug Kapustin/2008)

Maryland officials have filled in the blanks on their draft Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, and attached an eye-popping pricetag - $7.5 billion over the next five years, and nearly double that by 2025.

The cost estimates aren't a total shock, as state officials have previously ballparked restoration efforts at around $15 billion when all was said and done.

The plan calls for reducing in-state nitrogen discharges and runoff to the bay by 22 percent and curbing phosphorus nearly 15 percent.  The reductions would not fall evenly, with a 30 percent cutback in phosphorus expected from retrofitting storm-water runoff controls in existing communities and a 38 percent drop in nitrogen from septic systems proposed.

Even though the O'Malley administration has given itself more time to finish putting bay cleanup measures in place - dropping its 2020 deadline back to 2025, with all the rest of the bay states - Maryland officials still project getting the lion's share of the pollution reductions under way in the next five years.  The plan forecasts 78 percent of the nitrogen cutbacks and 98 percent of the phosphorus curbs will be set by 2017.

Maryland and the other five states that drain into the Chesapeake Bay have been scrambling since 2010 to come up with detailed blueprints for restoring the ailing estuary, to comply with a "pollution diet" drawn up by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Richard A. Eskin, science services director of the Maryland Department of the Environment, said with the planning push nearing its end, the cleanup effort now moves into what he calls a "marathon" mode, where states must make steady progress toward the pollution reduction targets.  Failing to do so risks federal sanctions - loss of funding or denial of permits needed for new and expanding businesses and development.

In part because of the stakes, the diet, bureaucratically known as a "total maximum daily load," is facing legal challenges from farmers and builders' groups, and criticis in Congress are attempting to tie up EPA's funding to enforce it.

The plan summary notes there still could be some tweaks in how pollution reductions are allocated, particularly with regard to agriculture and septic systems. 

And the big issue to be resolved is how to pay for it all. A task force appointed by Gov.Martin O'Malleyrecommended tripling the $30 annual "flush fee" paid by every household to cover costly upgrades of sewage treatment plants and help pay for similarly pricey retrofits of storm-water controls in existing communities.  But O'Malley opted to propose only a doubling of the fee, which won't even fund all the planned-for treatment plant overhauls.

The plan is posted on the Maryland Department of the Environment website.  Public comments are being taken through March 9, and there'll be five public information sessions held around the state in the coming weeks to answer questions about the cleanup blueprint.  Meetings will be held in Baltimore County March 1 and in the city March 5.  For details of the meetings and how to comment, go here.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun