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States, federal officials vow to catch up on lagging bay cleanup

With bay restoration lagging, state and federal officials promise to catch up, without saying how or when.

Leaders of the multistate Chesapeake Bay restoration effort acknowledged Thursday that the pace of the pollution cleanup is lagging and vowed to catch up, though they offered no specifics.

Meeting in Washington, federal agency heads and officials from Maryland and the other five states that drain into the bay approved a set of 25 "management strategies" for revitalizing the Chesapeake, which is plagued by algae blooms and a fish-stressing "dead zone."

Officials maintained that despite some shortcomings in curbing nutrient and sediment pollution, the collaborative effort has moved ahead in the year since a new restoration agreement was signed — the fourth such pact in the more than 30 years since their predecessors launched a campaign to turn around the ailing estuary.

"We have made tremendous progress. We have many challenges that lie ahead," said Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who presided over the gathering. He was the only governor to attend. Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford stood in for Gov. Larry Hogan, who is undergoing a second round of chemotherapy for cancer.

"We're doing great in some areas," said Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, after hearing a presentation about the uneven recovery of American shad in the bay.

She added that the effort is "systemically" falling short in other ways, particularly in reducing urban and farm runoff pollution. She pledged that her agency would be "aggressive" over the next several months in pushing the states to outline how they intend to get back on track.

An EPA review last month found that while some states, including Maryland, are making progress at achieving most of their cleanup goals, all have at least some shortcomings. Pennsylvania, with the largest share of the watershed and its pollution load, was found to be seriously off track in meeting its cleanup goals.

John Quigley, Pennsylvania's secretary of environmental protection, acknowledged that what the state has done to date is "clearly not enough," but said Gov. Tom Wolf inherited the cleanup shortfall when he took office in January. Quigley said the administration is working on a plan to "reboot" the state's bay restoration effort and pledged to unveil it soon.

McAuliffe pledged to establish a timetable for the states to get back on track, but he didn't say when that timetable would be public, noting that some of the bay leaders are recently elected and the new cleanup agreement is only a year old.

The group pledged to increase efforts to plant pollution-absorbing trees along waterfront, and they approved an appeal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for help in getting more farmers to fence or otherwise keep their livestock out of streams and rivers.

Rutherford also announced that bay leaders had agreed to convene a "summit" next year on alternative ways to pay for the multibillion-dollar bay restoration effort, including pollution trading and other market-based cleanup initiatives.

"We have a major challenge in meeting [cleanup] requirements," Rutherford said, and government may not be able to pay for them all with taxpayer funds.

Alluding to criticism Hogan has leveled at Pennsylvania for not doing enough to deal with its pollution, Rutherford mentioned the administration's concerns about the sediment buildup behind Conowingo Dam and suggested that finding other ways to pay for the bay restoration "can help some of our upstream partners."

William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, expressed frustration after the meeting, saying: "I heard way too much happy talk. ... There was very little discussion about pollution."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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