U.S. calls for more action to restore Chesapeake Bay

Baltimore Sun

The Obama administration unveiled a new strategy Monday for restoring the Chesapeake Bay that calls for stiffer controls on farm and urban runoff, but Republicans in Washington criticized legislation that would give the federal government more regulatory authority to clamp down on pollution in the nation's largest estuary.

Acting in response to a presidential executive order declaring the bay "a national treasure," federal environmental agencies proposed a sweeping plan to re-energize the lagging restoration effort with more water quality regulations, financial and technical aid for farmers and plans to promote more voluntary cleanup efforts with creation of a "conservation corps."

"This is a new era of federal leadership," J. Charles Fox, senior bay adviser for the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a telephone news conference. But Fox stressed that while President Barack Obama had directed federal agencies to take the lead, the plan depends on collaboration with state and local officials, businesses and residents. "We simply cannot succeed on our own," he said.

Under the strategy, the EPA would begin writing federal rules governing large-scale animal farms, municipal storm water and new or expanded sewage plants or industries. But the agency would shelve bay-specific regulations if the states strengthen their own pollution controls enough to restore the estuary's water quality.

States would be held accountable for achieving reductions in the nutrient pollution that is fouling the bay's waters from farms, development and sewage as well as from fallout from smokestack and motor vehicle exhaust. Should states fail to make progress, the federal government may impose sanctions to be specified later, such as withholding federal funds or denying permits for new development or businesses.

But the plan also pledges help attacking stubborn runoff pollution. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is earmarking an extra $90 million a year in federal payments to farmers in the six-state bay watershed, a spokeswoman said.

The federal government also vows to make a greater effort to curb polluted runoff from existing as well as new government facilities, and from new roads.

The plan calls for federal agencies to work with states on restoring the bay's disease-ravaged oyster population. And it proposes creation of a regional cadre of volunteers modeled on Americorps to perform restoration work in the watershed.

The draft plan drew a mixed response from environmental groups. Doug Siglin of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation called the strategy "a step forward" in seeking to focus bay restoration efforts from across the federal bureaucracy. But Tommy Landers of Environment Maryland said the strategy falls short because it defers to states to make pollution reductions, when states have failed to do enough to clean up the bay.

Meanwhile, state and federal officials endorsed a bill drafted by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, that would expand government authority to regulate all sources of pollution affecting the bay. At a Senate subcommittee hearing, Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, said Cardin's bill would tighten controls on polluted runoff, which is not regulated under current law even though it accounts for 60 percent of the bay's woes.

But Republican senators on the Environment and Public Works subcommittee complained the bill would go too far. Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, issued a statement calling the measure "a top-down, heavy-handed federal approach" that usurps states' authority, and he warned it would hurt rural communities if passed.

Cardin said the added federal oversight in the bill represents the wishes of bay state officials. His bill also would authorize $1.5 billion in new federal spending to help bay communities clean up storm water running off streets, lawns and parking lots.

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