Let’s sue Pennsylvania, Part II

Harrisburg's antiquated wastewater system combines sewage and storm water, contributing to the pollution that travels down the Susquehanna River and fouls the Chesapeake Bay.

Six weeks ago, we suggested that Maryland and Virginia should sue Pennsylvania for failing to comply with its commitments to reduce pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay (“Let’s sue Pennsylvania,” July 15). We even compared the situation to 18th century border skirmishes where shots were sometimes fired. A spokesman for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf called such litigation a terrible idea and suggested that Maryland send some of its Chesapeake tourism tax dollars upstream to pay for water quality improvements instead. Hah. Now, it turns out that this nonsense wasn’t the only crap Harrisburg was sending our way.

As detailed in a recent study by Washington, D.C.-based The Environmental Integrity Project, the city of Harrisburg — including Governor Wolf’s own residence — has been discharging a fairly extraordinary amount of human waste in our general direction. Last year alone, it was 1.4 billion gallons of sewage mixed with runoff from streets after storms (an unfortunate side effect of primitive infrastructure that sometimes combines the two waste streams), all of it ending up in the Susquehanna River, the Chesapeake’s largest freshwater source. Researchers found in the Susquehanna elevated levels of E. coli bacteria, a marker for human fecal matter. Capital Region Water (the municipal system’s operator) long ago promised to do better, signing a 2015 consent decree that has turned out to be toothless. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection isn’t doing much about it, and neither is the federal EPA. It appears nobody in Harrisburg wants to spend the money.


This, in a nutshell, is exactly how we’ve ended up with Pennsylvania investing more in excuses than in clean water. As noted in the EPA’s “Phase 3 Watershed Implementation Plans” findings of earlier this summer, Pennsylvania has fallen way behind Maryland and Virginia in cleanup efforts, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars of annual spending behind. This has not gone unnoticed in Richmond or Annapolis, but so far Mr. Wolf’s counterparts appear to be treating this with great delicacy and restraint as if all those tons of pollution (much of it from agriculture but clearly a hefty amount from sewage treatment plants and storm water, too) represented some minor faux pas like putting one’s champagne flute to the left of the red wine glass at the annual state dinner. The fact is Pennsylvania agreed to reduce pollution substantially by 2025 not only for the Chesapeake Bay’s benefit but for its own waterways, too. At this rate, it’s just not going to happen.

Last week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan sent a letter to Governor Wolf and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler complaining about Pennsylvania’s failure to meet WIP goals including those Harrisburg discharges and a “troubling funding gap of over $300 million annually.” He also called on the EPA to use its oversight powers. Fair enough. Advocates have also called on all parties to put more pressure on Pennsylvania, including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation which seems to think Governor Hogan can achieve compliance with a strongly worded missive from the Chesapeake Executive Council (composed of all six governors of Chesapeake watershed states plus D.C.'s mayor), which Mr. Hogan currently chairs. We think that’s seriously wishful thinking.


Here’s how we’d write the next letter to Pennsylvania’s governor: “Dear Governor Wolf: Meet past commitments to clean up your act including the filth coming out of Harrisburg or we’re taking you to federal court for failure to comply with the Clean Water Act. Signed, your neighbors.” See? It doesn’t have to be especially long and flowery. Just get to the point. Expecting the EPA under Mr. Wheeler to take serious action against Pennsylvania, especially when the 2020 election looms and Pennsylvania happens to be a key swing state for Donald Trump? Good luck with that.

As for Pennsylvania’s cry of poverty, a point reinforced by Mr. Wolf’s spokesman just days ago, here’s a side note to J.J. Abbott: Instead of expecting Maryland and Virginia to hand over tourism dollars, why doesn’t your state just start charging a severance tax against all those polluting fracking wells? Pennsylvania is the only major natural gas-producing state that doesn’t charge a severance tax (it assesses a more affordable one-time fee for each well instead). Governor Wolf supports the severance tax, incidentally. Offering to direct any new revenue to clean up local health hazards ought to make it all the more attractive. Perhaps with the goal of making the Susquehanna near Harrisburg safe for swimming once again. That and the threat of litigation (as a judicial order might be a whole lot more costly to Keystone taxpayers than voluntary compliance) might just do the trick.

In either case, it’s time to stop treating Pennsylvania so gently. Baltimore may have its sewage spills, too, but local residents are paying through the nose to upgrade pipes and treatment plants under a far stricter consent decree. Our “friends” in Pennsylvania can do the same.