WASHINGTON – Coastal water conditions in the Northeast fell from fair to poor in the last three years and the Chesapeake Bay, which accounts for 59 percent of the region’s coastal water, is the main reason why, a draft of a new report says.
The draft National Coastal Condition Report released Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency said that coastal waters in the nation as a whole remained the same or improved during the period. Only the Northeast and Puerto Rico declined.
And the Northeast does not stand much chance to improve its standing unless bay states change environmental policy, EPA officials said.
That statement raised eyebrows among some environmental groups, who accused the EPA of being hypocritical for not aggressively enforcing the Clean Water Act while calling on bay states to improve water quality.
“We need them (the EPA) now to step up and enforce the law and current regulations, not to ignore their obligation to ensure that the states are complying,” said Theresa Pierno, a vice-president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
But Barry Burgan, an EPA scientist who helped conduct research for the report, said “the purpose of the report is to describe the condition of coastal waters,” not to suggest policy measures to states.
In the best-case scenario, Burgan said, the report will point out specific regional problems, and give states a better idea of the kinds of changes necessary to improve water quality.
In the worst-case scenario, Pierno said, states will continue ignoring pollution. She said the fact that the Northeast — the Chesapeake in particular — has only gotten worse since the EPA released its first coastal-condition report in 2001 shows that states do nothing with information.
The latest report draws on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, among others, to measure coastal regions on five different factors: coastal habitat, water quality, sediment quality, bottom-dwelling organisms and fish tissue. It studied coasts in Puerto Rico and the continental United States, but not Alaska or Hawaii.
The Northeast region — the most densely populated coastal region in the nation — was poor in every category. That was a change from a similar survey in 2001,when the region was on the borderline between fair and poor.
The latest EPA report said that 27 percent of estuarine area in the Northeast is impaired for aquatic life, 31 percent is impaired for humans and 49 percent is threatened for aquatic life.
Burgan said comparing the two reports is tricky, since the 2001 survey measured a total of seven factors and assessed only about 70 percent of the nation’s water, while the new report accounts for 100 percent. He said people should just take the new report at face value.
An official with Maryland Sea Grant welcomed the new report, saying her office is interested in all perspectives of coastal health, and the more studies the better.
“Information like this is very useful in figuring out how regions can cooperate to change problems,” said Fredrika Moser, assistant research director for Maryland Sea Grant.
While she agreed that the EPA could be doing more to decrease pollution in the bay, she stopped short of calling the new report hypocritical.
Pierno said the bay foundation will use the report as more proof that the EPA needs to enforce clean water regulations, saying the federal agency’s job is to help reduce, not just point out, environmental problems.
She said the main reason why the bay is in such dire straits is the EPA’s failure to enforce the Clean Water Act. The bay foundation petitioned the EPA in November to enforce the act by limiting nitrogen discharge from sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities, but has seen no results so far, she said.
Nitrogen — the biggest pollutant in the bay — encourages the growth of algae, which kills other aquatic life by keeping sunlight from reaching under the waves. Pierno said current technology could reduce such discharges to 3 percent, but even the most environmentally conscious industries have only reduced runoff to about 8 percent.
State action will have little effect as long as the EPA “refuses” to enforce laws that could decrease contamination, she said.
“We need federal EPA action to make sure that all of the states are putting in the effort,” Pierno said. “Maryland can’t do it alone.”
-30- CNS 03-09-04