(Posted by Gerald Winegrad)
Despite repeated written commitments and solemn pledges made over the last 27 years, the states in the Bay watershed have failed by wide margins to reduce the nutrient, sediment, and chemical pollutants poisoning the Chesapeake Bay. The voluntary-collaborative Chesapeake Bay Program has failed to restore the Bay’s waters from being so polluted that 90 percent of the water does not meet basic Clean Water Act standards.
In 1987, the states and the federal government publicly committed in a formal document to reduce two key pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorus, by 40 percent by 2000. When these goals were not met and there were no consequences for the states apart from a dying Bay, the governors and the EPA in 2000 set definitive new goals to be met by this year. Now, faced with missing these new clean-up requirements by wide margins, the U.S. EPA is required by law and court settlements to set and enforce new pollution caps for the Bay and each state in the watershed. This pollution diet or Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) process requires the states to respond with detailed plans to meet these caps called Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs).
The EPA has been steadfast despite withering opposition to the setting of these pollution caps and state plans for achieving them. Why the opposition after the states were aware of the requirement that pollution caps would be set to force them to substantially reduce the pollutants killing the Bay? Because the states and polluters have been operating under a voluntary, cooperative approach called the Bay Program where there have been no sanctions for failure to meet the agreed upon cuts in pollutants.
Now, most of the Bay states (Maryland being an exception) are trying to delay or block the setting of pollution diets and most of the state plans that would make sure these caps are met are inadequate. This is occurring despite the postponement until 2025 for the states to take the actions needed to meet 100 percent of the pollution reductions, and until 2017 to meet the first 60 percent. The states are being joined in their efforts to delay the pollution caps for an ailing Bay by local governments, homebuilders associations, the farm lobby, and other special interest polluters. At least 23 Congressmen, including U.S. Senators and both D’s and R’s, have joined in formal letters to the president or the EPA Administrator calling for delays.
As long as all of the previous commitments to save the Bay were voluntary and there were no sanctions for failing to meet the agreed upon pollutant reduction goals, little opposition to the agreements were voiced. Now, with the setting of legally binding limits by the EPA and the real possibility of sanctions for not meeting the limits, there is a storm of opposition. The old mantra is trotted out again and again: “We are for the saving the Bay, but….”
We have so poisoned our waters that reports abound of serious infections in people who have come in contact with bay water. Fish kills are common, rockfish are contaminated with mercury, catfish have been found to have cancerous lesions, male bass from the Potomac, the Susquehanna, and Eastern Shore lakes are turning up with female egg sacs, and swimmers are advised to avoid the Bay and its tributaries after heavy rains.
There was a time when bright-eyed environmentalists tried to frighten the lethargic public into action with doomsday scenarios, but the fact is that “scenario” is no longer applicable: The nightmare has become reality for the Bay. Instead of acting to significantly reduce pollutants, some state leaders are trying to block the EPA’s efforts. Typical of this reaction are the comments of the Pennsylvania Secretary of Environmental Protection John Hanger “This isn’t China, where the Communist Party meets and announces that ‘We’re just doing it.’ And if EPA proceeds in a way that is more like that … it’s going to be counterproductive.” He was quoted in an editorial in the Harrisburg Patriot-News that called the EPA’s TMDL process “unrealistic” and costly. Pennsylvania is responsible for about 40 percent of the key Bay choking pollutant, nitrogen.
Our senior bay scientists and policymakers have spelled out for Secretary Hanger and presented to him personally along with other Bay state leaders the 25 measures necessary to restore the Bay. We remain hopeful that Pennsylvania and the other Bay states will finally step up to the plate and adopt these necessary measures. No more studies, no more promises, no more delays—it is time to enforce the Clean Water Act and take the bold, necessary steps to clean up the Bay.