Environmentalists and politicians worry Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts could be weakened, if not doomed, days after the federal official overseeing that work called an agreement to reduce water pollution an “aspirational” goal and not rules to be enforced.
They say the federal Environmental Protection Agency, through its Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Program office, plays a central role in guiding water quality improvements across the big estuary’s watershed. Under the EPA’s supervision, six states and the District of Columbia in 2010 agreed to significantly reduce pollution by 2025; the EPA pledged it would step in if they didn’t meet the goals.
So it stirred significant concern when Dana Aunkst, the bay program’s director, suggested Friday that’s no longer the case.
At a meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a partnership between Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, Aunkst called the so-called pollution “diet” codified a decade ago “an informational document” that is not “enforceable."
On Monday, Aunkst’s comments raised questions about what role the EPA might play in cleanup efforts going forward, and whether the agency is bound to enforce the agreement under federal law. Sen. Chris Van Hollen said he planned to ask EPA officials for clarity this week, and both he and Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said they plan to air their concerns at a Senate committee hearing Wednesday.
Top Maryland officials, meanwhile, are exploring potential legal action. Concerns have been mounting that Pennsylvania is not doing enough to reduce the amount of fertilizer runoff and other pollution flowing down the Susquehanna River into the Chesapeake Bay. Representatives for Gov. Larry Hogan and Attorney General Brian Frosh said they are exploring what can be done to hold the commonwealth to the north to its water quality commitments.
At the same time, Congress and President Donald Trump recently signed off on a 16% budget increase to help maintain, if not accelerate, cleanup of the nation’s largest estuary. The Trump administration previously tried to slash funding for the bay program.
Van Hollen, who pushed for the budget increase as a member of the Senate’s appropriations committee, said he would “fight back strongly” if the Trump administration is now suggesting the EPA would not take an active role in the Chesapeake.
“We need clarity on this immediately," he said in a statement. “Congress has made clear on a bipartisan basis that we will do everything we can to protect and preserve the Bay.”
Sen. Ben Cardin said he was “alarmed” by Aunkst’s statements, stressing that the bay plan was “required” under the federal Clean Water Act and consent decrees imposed on Virginia and the District of Columbia in the 1990s.
EPA officials did not make Aunkst available for an interview Monday. In a statement, they said the agency will “continue to work with the Chesapeake Bay states and the District of Columbia to develop and implement plans” to restore the bay by 2025.
“We will continue to provide substantial support, track progress and take appropriate actions within our authorities," they added.
The statement, however, repeated Aunkst’s assertion that the agency considers plans to improve water quality — known for setting pollution targets called Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs — to be “informational planning tools.”
Environmental groups said that description is counter to their understanding after decades of working with the EPA and pushing for Chesapeake cleanup plans.
The TMDL plan outlines specific targets for each state to reduce the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments that enter the bay’s waters largely from fertilized fields and wastewater treatment plants. The pollutants cloud waters and feed algae blooms that eventually strip oxygen from the water.
Lisa Feldt, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s vice president for environmental protection and restoration, called Aunkst’s comments jarring to the roomful of advocates who gathered for the bay commission’s annual meeting.
“All the states have invested significant amounts of resources to get us to 2025,” she said. She called his comments “very irresponsible, not well thought out and very troubling."
Still, not all in attendance said they were ready to assume the worst. Ann Swanson, the commission’s executive director, said it was not immediately clear what Aunkst was referring to, and called the EPA’s statement on his comments “reassuring.”
An EPA spokeswoman said Monday evening the agency would comment further on Tuesday; she did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The Chesapeake cleanup plan is one of many of its kind that EPA oversees across the country, though it is unique for its large scale and cooperation among so many levels of government, said Peter Goodwin, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. And by all accounts, it has helped the estuary’s health improve significantly, he said.
In many cases where such plans have succeeded, the EPA has played a central role, stepping in when necessary to ensure goals are met, Goodwin said.
“If they’re going to be effective, they need to be enforceable,” he said. “Otherwise people will say, ‘Well, we’ll do what we can.’”
Baltimore Sun Media reporter Rachael Pacella contributed to this article.