Observing the signing of the very first Chesapeake Bay cleanup agreement in 1983, Maryland state Sen. Gerald Winegrad would never have imagined the string of failures ahead, he said.
Bay agreements prescribing pollution cuts for 2000 and 2010 would both fall short. And now, it seems targets for 2025 won’t be met either.
Winegrad, a longtime bay advocate, is among the legislators and environmentalists frustrated by the impending failure — and by an Environmental Protection Agency that appears more likely to move the goal posts than to drop the hammer.
“It’s a collapsing house of cards,” Winegrad said. “The restoration has reached a nadir. It is at its lowest ebb. And no matter how many people try to put lipstick on a pig, that’s the way it really is.”
Last week, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s executive council painted a rosy picture of the recovery effort thus far while asking its staff members to spend the next year evaluating a new path forward for the stalling agreement. The council did not announce any new sanctions against the states lagging behind — all but West Virginia and Washington, D.C., according to the EPA.
The plan, established by the EPA in 2010, set a “pollution diet” for specific contaminants entering the Chesapeake, including nitrogen and phosphorous. According to the EPA, the states are poised to hit 49% of the required nitrogen reductions and 64% of the phosphorus reductions.
Advocates say EPA Administrator Michael Regan, who serves as chairman of the council, should use the tools at his disposal more aggressively to enforce the pollution reductions required by the 2025 plan. The EPA could withhold grant funding and critical environmental permits or ramp up environmental inspections and fines, for instance.
“The Chesapeake Bay cleanup agreement is missing its most important tools: enforcement and accountability,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “We have had a lot of great success with voluntary measures. We’ve gotten where we can get with those. And if we just throw more money at the problem, we’re never going to get there.”
Nicholas and others spoke at a news conference Tuesday timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act, landmark legislation that called for swimmable and fishable waters in the United States by 1983. But much of the conversation focused on the growing realization that the Chesapeake Bay states will fall short of their pollution reduction targets once again.
In an interview, EPA’s Mid-Atlantic administrator Adam Ortiz highlighted his team’s decision in April to increase environmental inspections and enforcement in Pennsylvania for all sectors — from agriculture to industry and wastewater treatment.
“Pennsylvania is where most of the bleeding is occurring, so that has been our focus,” he said. “But the other states certainly have a lot to do.”
Taking other kinds of steps, such as withholding grant money, could be counterintuitive, Ortiz said. He likened it to “not giving food to the starving person” since many EPA grants help states and localities address pollution issues.
In Maryland, the EPA did reject a pollution plan for the Conowingo Dam, Ortiz said. The dam, which once trapped high quantities of sediment rushing down the Susquehanna River toward the Chesapeake, has essentially filled, meaning overflows of pollutants and sediment are an increasing threat.
The moves have reflected an about-face from former President Donald Trump’s EPA, Ortiz said.
“We’re taking over from an EPA that was under Donald Trump, that zeroed out the Chesapeake Bay Program year after year,” he said.
Tuesday, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, bemoaned what he considered the overly congratulatory tone at last week’s Chesapeake Bay Program meeting, which featured Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, both Republicans who touted their state’s pollution reduction efforts.
“Gov. Hogan and Virginia Gov. Youngkin congratulated themselves when EPA extended the deadline rather than imposing sanctions,” Frosh said. “This is not cause for celebration.”
Frosh said there’s a “nuclear option” for the EPA to consider as well, in response to the states’ failures. The EPA could wrest regulatory authority from the bay states and go after polluters itself.
In Maryland, that function is handled by Hogan’s Department of the Environment, which has attracted scrutiny recently for a decrease in water pollution inspections and associated staff members.
Frosh said he’s hopeful Maryland will soon be “turning the page,” with a new administration replacing the term-limited governor, and that such action from the EPA wouldn’t be necessary. But Frosh said he feels no such optimism about Pennsylvania, which has the steepest hill to climb to meet its 2025 commitments.
“There’s been some interest over the past few years in Pennsylvania stepping up, but frankly, I haven’t seen it,” he said. “If you have an EPA that’s doing its job, it could make a huge difference.”
In 2020, Frosh’s office sued the EPA over its enforcement of the 2025 agreement, particularly for Pennsylvania and New York. It came shortly after the Trump-era Chesapeake Bay Program director said publicly that the plan was aspirational — not enforceable.
President Joe Biden’s EPA has taken a different tack.
In addition to stepping up inspections, the EPA rejected Pennsylvania’s bay pollution reduction plan, forcing it to submit revisions that are still under review, Ortiz said.
But Ortiz has cited recent legislative victories in Pennsylvania as a source of optimism. The state will spend $220 million of its federal American Rescue Plan money on a Clean Streams Fund to include payments to farmers who take steps to reduce pollution running off the land into local waterways.
More must be done to hold the agricultural industry accountable for its contributions to the bay’s pollution loads, said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, which is based in Washington, D.C.
“We’ve relied on voluntary programs and exhortation to persuade the agricultural industry to do its part. It’s just not working,” Schaeffer said. “We really need enforceable limits for the agricultural sector and we need them enforced. ... Until we get that, we’re just going to be back here in another 15 years bemoaning the failure of yet another bay cleanup plan.”
Fifty years after the Clean Water Act’s enactment, some 80% of Maryland’s rivers and streams remain impaired for swimming, according to a report produced by the Integrity Project. The same goes for about 91% of the Chesapeake.