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Obama administration offers new bay cleanup plan

— The Obama administration's beefed-up plan to revive the Chesapeake Bay would toughen regulations on developers and farmers, preserve 2 million more acres of the watershed and give the public hundreds of new places to gain access to the bay and its tributaries.

Federal officials said the plan, unveiled Wednesday, would jump-start the lagging cleanup effort and hold all levels of government accountable for bringing vitality back to "a national treasure."

It calls for stricter enforcement of pollution laws, taking aim at the bay's biggest source of pollution: runoff of fertilizer and animal manure. It also would increase efforts to restore fish and wildlife, including reintroducing native oysters to rivers that haven't harbored the bay's signature shellfish for decades.

"We are initiating one of the most comprehensive restorations in decades," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said at a news conference on a deck over the Anacostia River, one of the bay's most degraded tributaries.

The 171-page document features a dozen numerical goals to be achieved by 2025, the latest deadline state and federal officials have set for restoring the Chesapeake after more than 26 years of trying and billions spent with only modest results. The goals include:

•Imposing new or expanded pollution-control measures on 4 million acres of farmland in the six-state watershed.

•Preserving 2 million more acres of land from development across the region, including nearly 700,000 acres of forests, to safeguard their roles as natural pollution filters and habitats for wildlife.

•Adding 300 more spots around the bay and its tributaries where people can get to the water, a 40 percent increase, on the premise that increasing public access will strengthen political support for the cleanup.

•Restoring oysters in 20 rivers as part of a broad effort to revive the bay's once-thriving population. The plan also would set a higher population target for blue crabs, restore pollution-sensitive brook trout in headwater streams and nearly triple the population of black ducks that winter on the bay.

The plan, prepared over the past year in response to an executive order by President Barack Obama, represents an "unprecedented" level of federal involvement in the multistate restoration effort — and could guide efforts to reclaim other polluted waterways, said Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Administration officials added the numerical targets to the plan over the last six months, in response to widespread public criticism that a draft released in November was vague.

But the focus of the bay cleanup plan remains essentially unchanged. Bound by a 1999 court-ordered consent decree, the EPA intends to impose a strict pollution "diet" by the end of this year on the estuary, as well as its rivers and streams. State and local governments will be expected to comply by upgrading sewage treatment plants and curbing polluted runoff from farms and other land.

Mindful of criticism that the bay cleanup has set ambitious long-range goals before, only to miss them, administration officials said they would join the states in drawing up interim, two-year targets or "milestones," with annual progress reports. They also pledged to arrange for an independent evaluation of how they're sticking to the plan.

The pollution cleanup measures spelled out in the plan mirror an out-of-court settlement the EPA reached two days ago with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others who sued in January 2009 accusing the federal government of shirking its responsibility.

William C. Baker, the foundation president, praised the federal strategy but said in a statement that "a plan alone will not deliver ... safe, clean water to the Chesapeake Bay." The settlement binds the federal government to act by an agreed-upon timetable or face the prospect of renewed litigation, he contends.

"We are determined to meet and exceed these goals," said Sutley, the president's environmental adviser.

Administration officials said that in addition to new regulations, they are increasing federal funding to help restore the bay. Jackson said the EPA has doubled direct aid to bay states to $11.2 million this year, while Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack committed to providing $700 million over the next four years to help the region's farmers pay for installing needed runoff-control measures.

Rena Steinzor, president of the Washington-based Center for Progressive Reform and a University of Maryland law professor, said "there's a lot" in the bay federal strategy. But the key to its success, she added, depends on how firm the EPA is with bay states in demanding that they adopt needed pollution controls on time. States, which have failed in the past to meet self-imposed goals, are expected to spell out their plans by November for meeting the EPA's new clean-water limits.

"EPA has to be ready to crack down on these people if they don't meet these deadlines," Steinzor said. "Otherwise we're going to get on the carousel and ride around again."

Others were troubled that the plan remains vague about what the federal government will do if states fall short or miss deadlines. The document says states may lose federal funds or could have needed permits held up, but it does not specify when those sanctions might begin.

"It's the same thing we've seen before," said Piper Crowell of Environment America, a Washington-based activist group with branches in the bay states.

"This is a great public event, and the attention is much-needed on this issue," she added. "But the rubber hits the road when the states put together their plans and EPA reviews them."

The EPA's impending pollution "diet" for bay states and communities — though mandated by a court-ordered consent decree — could still be vulnerable to legal challenge by businesses, farmers or local officials who might object to the costs and question the agency's right to impose it. New Chesapeake legislation introduced in Congress last year by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, both Maryland Democrats, would address that, activists said.

"It helps give a legal backing to some of the things that EPA would like to do and just reinforces their authority," said Ryan Ewing, spokesman for the Choose Clean Water coalition, representing more than 40 environmental groups in the bay region.

The bill also would authorize $1.5 billion in new federal aid for controlling polluted storm runoff from urban and suburban lands, a growing threat to water quality. And it would create "markets" for reducing pollution, where factories or wastewater plants seeking to avoid costly controls on their discharges could pay farmers to curb runoff from their fields instead.

"The big question for the Obama administration now is, What's their position on the Chesapeake Clean Water Act?" said Baker, the bay foundation's president. To date, administration officials have declined to say whether they support the legislation, which has yet to move in either chamber of Congress.

To read a summary or the full plan, go to http://executiveorder.chesapeakebay.net/

Tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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