WASHINGTON – State officials and environmental advocates told Maryland’s congressional delegation that tougher pollution standards and increased federal funding are part of the solution for restoring the Chesapeake Bay’s health during a meeting Thursday on Capitol Hill.
The afternoon meeting at the Dirksen Senate Office Building came one week after the Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued the most recent in a series of reports this year confirming that the health of the country’s largest estuary remains poor.
“We understand the uniqueness of the Chesapeake Bay and how important it is to Maryland,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md. “The bottom line is, the bay’s in trouble and we have to make some major changes.”
One consensus centered on the importance of continued funding to upgrade the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant in the District, which discharges 5.5 million pounds of nitrogen each year, including from users in Maryland and Virginia.
Maryland, Virginia and the District have contributed $700 million to a project to correct sewer overflows and add nutrient removal technology, with the federal government providing matching grants worth $135 million.
Completion of the $3.2 billion project could reduce nitrogen discharges by 4 million pounds annually, said Shari Wilson, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment.
“It is probably the single largest action that any of us can take to reduce nutrients,” Wilson said.
The panel also recommended that the federal Clean Water Act be given the same kind of “teeth” contained in the Clean Air Act, under which states could lose federal transportation money for failing to meet compliance standards.
“With the Clean Water Act, we don’t quite have that ramification,” Wilson said.
Another legislative remedy suggested by the panel was addressing highway runoff through the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Act, which funds state highway projects and is up for reauthorization.
Of the 42,000 bodies of water on the federal impaired waters list, about 28,000 of the impairments can be directly traced to highway runoff, said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
While new highway construction faces EPA requirements on stormwater, Swanson said, there are no federal requirements to combat runoff from existing highways.
Attacking nitrogen and phosphorous pollution generated by farms and wasterwater plants without devoting resources to highway runoff is self-defeating, said Kim Coble, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
“Until we can actually address it, we are really going backward,” Coble said. “It doesn’t make sense environmentally or from an economic standpoint.”
Some areas in the upper bay are showing signs of recovery, said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Studies.
“We’re seeing some grasses return (and) water quality improve,” Boesch said. “It may be some initial signs that we’re seeing some recovery.”
That recovery could receive a much needed boost from the Obama administration, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., told the panel, pointing to the president’s environmental appointments.
“For us, no issue is too small and no challenge is too big to be moving on this,” she said. “The Maryland delegation wants to work with you and we are eager to hear what your issues are.”