WASHINGTON – An environmental umbrella group said it will sue the Environmental Protection Agency today for allowing the state Maryland to fall behind on the establishment of pollution limits for Chesapeake Bay waters.
The Waterkeepers of the Chesapeake Region said that without action by the EPA, it could be decades before the Maryland Department of Environment meets standards set under the Clean Water Act.
“As long as they don’t take these steps we will never have clean water in the bay or in the tributaries and streams leading into the bay,” said Ed Merrifield, executive director of Potomac Riverkeeper, one of several groups that banded together to file the suit.
The alliance of environmental groups said the suit, which it plans to file in U.S. District Court in Maryland, will seek to make the EPA enforce the act.
But state and federal officials said the Waterkeepers are unfairly judging Maryland’s pace on a program that only got underway in the late 1990s.
“The last five or six years were the start-up phase of a very complex program,” said Jon Capacasa, director of the water protection division at EPA’s Region III office in Philadelphia. It would not be accurate to extrapolate the past pace into the future, he said.
At issue is the state’s establishment of “total maximum daily loads” of pollutants for areas that are dirtied above acceptable levels. State officials said they plan to have load limits set by the end of the year for 166 of the total 617 such impaired areas in Maryland waterways.
That would put the state on track to meet a deadline that it set with the EPA in November, to establish the load limits on 300 areas by 2011 and to do the rest of the sites within 8 to 13 years of their designation as impaired.
But the Chesapeake Waterkeepers said that, at its current pace, the state will not finish until 2037. And that could have devastating results on the environment, the alliance said.
“I think we would see a continuing trend of degrading water quality . . . and a decline in the quality of life for the people that live and play around the bay, and certainly for the critters that live in the bay,” said Drew Koslow of the South River Federation.
This is the second time the state has been sued in an effort to speed up creation of the pollution budgets. A 1998 lawsuit by the Sierra Club, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and another group, resulted in a 2008 deadline for creating the limits, Merrifield said.
A spokesman for the Department of the Environment could not confirm the 2008 deadline, but he did note that the court in the earlier lawsuit found that the state’s process for setting load limits was acceptable.
“The courts feel that we’re on track, EPA feels we’re on track and we know and believe we’re on track as well,” said Richard McIntire, the MDE spokesman.
The 1972 Clean Water Act first required states to create the pollution limits. The Chesapeake Waterkeepers contend that the act set a deadline of 1979 and that Maryland did not list a TMDL until 1998.
But McIntire said there was no 1979 deadline and EPA officials said that most states did not start creating the pollution budgets until about six years ago — about the same time as Maryland.
This will be the second bay-related lawsuit filed against the EPA in less than a month. In mid-November, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sued in an effort to force the agency to enact stricter nitrogen controls.
The latest suit is not met to be hostile, Merrifield said.
“We’re just trying to get the job done and make them do what they said they were going to do,” he said.
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