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Chesapeake Bay states are unlikely to reach EPA’s 2025 cleanup deadline at current pace, report finds

Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia are unlikely to reach their joint Chesapeake Bay pollution limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency in time for a 2025 deadline, according to a report released Wednesday by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

The report, which chronicles the states’ progress in reducing nitrogen and phosphorus in the estuary, found that Maryland and Virginia are mostly on track to hit their reduction targets. Many of the two states’ successes so far have come from major improvements in wastewater treatment plants, while advancements in other areas — such as mitigating stormwater runoff and agricultural pollution — will be needed to finish the job.

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Pennsylvania, on the other hand, continues to lag behind, the report said. To catch up, that state likely will need to commit significant resources to helping farmers reduce soil erosion and pesticide runoff, according to the report. Pennsylvania’s shortcomings, meanwhile, threaten to undo the work of neighboring states, experts said.

“If the Pennsylvania waterways are not clean, the downstream bay will not be clean,” said Alison Prost, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s vice president for environmental protection and restoration, during a news conference Wednesday.

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The Susquehanna River drains much of central Pennsylvania and supplies about 55% of the bay’s freshwater.

The EPA plan, commonly known as the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint, created a recommended “pollution diet” for the bay in 2010 with a 2025 deadline. Environmental groups say meeting it is imperative, with climate change jeopardizing estuary wildlife and threatening to produce more severe storms that could send plenty more dangerous runoff into the bay.

The Bay Foundation filed suit in 2020 against the EPA, alongside the attorneys general of Maryland and other nearby states, arguing the federal agency was not doing enough to enforce its cleanup plan.

Jon Mueller, the Bay Foundation’s vice president for litigation, said Wednesday that the suit is pending still before the U.S. District Court in Washington, which is reviewing several outstanding motions in the case.

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Pennsylvania submitted an updated plan to the EPA at the end of 2021 to meet its federal obligations, particularly a 9.8 million-pound gap between the nitrogen pollution reductions planned and those required by the blueprint.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell called the state’s new plan an “exciting turning point” in response to questions from The Baltimore Sun about the Bay Foundation’s findings on that state’s slow progress. The plan described Pennsylvania’s 3 million acres of farmland as a “staggering, but not insurmountable” challenge when it comes to pollution reduction.

The EPA is reviewing the state’s plan, and “is serious about taking greater federal action” if it’s not up to snuff, said Adam Ortiz, the agency’s Mid-Atlantic regional administrator, in a news release.

“It could be increased permitting requirements and increased inspections ... stronger enforcement actions. There’s a variety of tools that we have,” Ortiz said in an interview Wednesday. “We’ve been talking in circles for a long time, and we’re committed to find the outcomes.”

The agency expects to complete its review of Pennsylvania’s plan in about two months, Ortiz said.

Meanwhile, the Bay Foundation has recommended that Pennsylvania legislators approve bills that would establish a program to aid farmers with agricultural conservation, as well as a fund to help localities clean steams and reduce polluted runoff flowing from streets and impervious surfaces.

Development in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia is one of the biggest challenges endangering the bay cleanup effort. In Maryland alone, 2,500 acres of forest — an area roughly half the size of Annapolis — are lost annually, mostly to suburban and urban growth. That means there are more hard surfaces that cannot soak up polluting runoff before it flows into the bay, where excess nutrients promote the overgrowth of algae, stealing valuable oxygen and sunlight from marine life. Climate change is likely to make the problem worse.

“We have a large amount of development that is far outpacing our ability to retrofit existing hard surfaces: parking lots, roads, buildings. And so, the amount of stormwater pollution is increasing,” said Josh Kurtz, the Bay Foundation’s Maryland executive director. “When you layer on top of that climate change — more water, faster-paced, flashier storms — it’s only becoming harder and becoming more dangerous not only for our waterways, but also for our citizens.”

Addressing stormwater pollution should be Maryland’s “largest concern” when it comes to bay restoration, Kurtz said. That likely will require the state to strengthen municipal stormwater permits in addition to runoff permits for construction sites and industrial sites.

Last month, the Bay Foundation and local conservation group Blue Water Baltimore challenged state stormwater permits issued to Baltimore City and Baltimore County in court. They argued the permits did not do enough to address runoff, and allowed the localities to rely heavily on practices such as street sweeping — which does little to slow runoff, though it cleans certain pollutants from streets.

“We need to increase the natural filters across the agricultural landscape — things like forest buffers — really the things that help us kind of act as a sponge and pull pollution out,” Kurtz said.

Maryland has, however, made great strides in reducing pollution coming from wastewater treatment plants, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation report said. States and localities have so far completed necessary upgrades to 64 out of 67 of the state’s largest plants. In Baltimore, the completion of a project to capture backups that had clogged the sewers beneath the city for years and to reduce overflows into waterways has been lauded as a major step in reducing pollution in the Inner Harbor and the bay at large.

But problems remain. Just last year, Blue Water Baltimore helped uncover serious issues at Baltimore’s two city-run wastewater treatment plants — Patapsco and Back River. Maintenance and operational problems meant thousands of gallons of partially treated sewage had been flowing into the bay’s tributaries for months.

In addition, the state needs to do more than check off big-ticket items like wastewater treatment improvements to meet its goals. Changes to agricultural practices are needed here, too, the report stated.

For instance, state’s targets for planting natural filters such as trees on farms are not ambitious enough, the report stated. The report recommended state officials work to increase enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, and encourage more farms to maintain diverse year-round crop or pasture cover in their fields, among other actions.

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The foundation issued similar recommendations for Virginia, which is largely on track to meet the reductions from the EPA’s Blueprint, but faces challenges, including the loss of forested areas the size of Richmond every year. In fact, the commonwealth’s suburban and urban runoff is increasing, to the point where reductions in agriculture pollution are offset, the report stated.

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But at Wednesday’s news conference, officials urged optimism. With several years remaining before the EPA deadline, they said, time remains to make needed policy changes. And an influx of cash from the federal American Rescue Plan, the federal infrastructure package and hopefully the Biden administration’s Build Back Better spending bill could make it easier for localities to shell out to protect the bay, Bay Foundation officials said.

“We know what needs to be done,” Prost said. “It is possible. We can be the success story of clean water.”

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