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Pa. capitol pumps waste directly into Chesapeake Bay’s biggest tributary

Senator Mark Warner took the tour with Chesapeake Bay Foundation to talk about bay cleanup, and threats to the bay from President Trump's proposed budget.

The Chesapeake Bay cleanup is swamped by a political problem.

Pennsylvania contributes by far the most pollution of any state — about twice as much as Maryland — but has done the least to meet its cleanup obligations. This is in part because Pennsylvania voters do not live near the Chesapeake and so are not motivated to spend money or accept regulations they think will mostly benefit folks on yachts far away in Annapolis.

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“Unlike Maryland, Pennsylvania doesn’t generate millions of dollars from tourism on the Chesapeake Bay and can’t use those resources, at the moment, to improve water quality,” J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, told reporters last week.

Mr. Wolf, a Democrat, was punching back against Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican. The day before, Mr. Hogan had fired off a letter to Pennsylvania’s governor and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler expressing Maryland’s “alarming concerns” about Pennsylvania’s shortchanging of the bay cleanup effort by about $300 million.

Thursday, the two governors are scheduled to meet face-to-face to discuss the issue. Governor Hogan is chairing a meeting of a regional coalition of governors and other government officials called the Chesapeake Executive Council. On the agenda is a discussion of why Pennsylvania is lagging so far behind in its bay cleanup obligations.

In Maryland, bad blood and talk of an interstate lawsuit have been brewing over the issue of Pennsylvania dumping on its downstream neighbor.

Governor Hogan wrote his Aug. 29 letter to Governor Wolf after reading reports from EPA on Pennsylvania’s weak bay cleanup plan as well as news reports on an investigation by the Environmental Integrity Project. Our nonprofit organization found that Pennsylvania’s capital was releasing an increasing amount of sewage mixed with stormwater — 789 million gallons in 2016 and 1.4 billion gallons last year — into the Susquehanna River, the bay’s biggest tributary.

Our research revealed that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had taken a lax approach to enforcing the Clean Water Act in its own back yard, including by approving a weak 2015 consent decree to govern sewage overflows from Harrisburg’s antiquated and leaky combined sewage and stormwater system. Not only did the state agency fail to impose a deadline for the state capital to stop dumping sewage into the river, it penalized only 20% of 131 self-reported illegal sewage violations by Harrisburg Capital Region Water over the last four years.

More disturbing, we found that — on average, once or twice a week — when officials in the State Capitol Complex or Governor’s Residence on the banks of the Susquehanna flush their toilets, their waste is piped directly into the river without any treatment or filtration. We worked with the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper this summer to monitor the river just downstream from outfalls leading directly from those sites and found E coli bacteria levels more than 10 times safe levels.

That Pennsylvania’s governor is flushing his toilet downstream into Maryland is symbolic of a larger failure of the Keystone State to take water quality seriously. For example, Pennsylvania has upgraded only 4% of its 189 sewage treatment plants in the bay watershed to state-of-the art levels, according to EPA data. In contrast, Maryland has modernized 94% of its 67 sewage plants with what experts call “enhanced nutrient removal” systems.

Many farms in Pennsylvania still do not have or follow fertilizer runoff pollution control plans, even though agricultural runoff is the single largest source of pollution in the bay.

Pennsylvania’s governor complains that his state does not “generate millions of dollars from tourism” on its waterways like Maryland enjoys with the Chesapeake Bay. Well, in fact, Pennsylvania does have a beautiful, gardened waterfront park and beach in its state capital. But, sadly, Harrisburg’s City Island Park Beach is not generating any tourism dollars because it is closed due to high fecal bacteria levels. Upstream from signs warning “STOP: This beach is closed!” is the governor’s own toilet.

Tom Pelton (tpelton@environmentalintegrity.org) is director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project and author of the book “The Chesapeake in Focus: Transforming the Natural World.”

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