ANNAPOLIS – The Environmental Protection Agency announced plans Thursday to curb pollution in the Chesapeake Bay with tighter regulations on urban, suburban and agricultural runoff and sanctions for states that don’t make sufficient progress.
Required by an executive order signed by President Obama in May, the EPA and several other federal agencies released a report confronting the problem of stormwater runoff, which brings excess nutrients, chemicals and sediment into the bay, causing harmful algae blooms and creating “dead zones” that choke the water of oxygen.
In a teleconference Thursday, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said if the six states and the District of Columbia that make up the Chesapeake Bay watershed don’t reduce pollution levels, the EPA will intervene. The threat of federal intervention echoes legislation introduced earlier this week by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., that would give the agency more power to punish noncompliant states.
“If we want to prove we are serious about the bay, we need to step up our oversight,” said Jackson. “The goal here is to use federal leadership, and frankly federal muscle, when necessary.”
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley championed the report, which he said will accelerate progress.
“I want to applaud the leadership of President Obama and Administrator Jackson as for the first time in history, the federal government has elevated restoration of the Chesapeake Bay to its rightful place as a true national priority,” said O’Malley, in a statement issued Thursday.
Tommy Landers, field organizer for the activist group Environment Maryland, said runoff has been a major problem for years. To date, the EPA has only been able to regulate direct polluters like power plants and sewage pipelines, he said. With a renewed effort and stricter regulations, there might be hope.
“After 25-odd years of goals and not meeting them and putting off a healthy bay for the next administration, we think that this is such a perfect storm for having results for the bay,” he said. “If what we see in the report is actually implemented, it would be a game-changer.”
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said more farms are going to have to make nutrient management plans that keep an eye on the levels of potentially harmful nutrients in the soil. He said the strategies will target specific areas across the watershed that contribute large amounts of pollution.
“This is not a situation where there is only one part of our economy or one part of our geography responsible,” Vilsack said.
But Valerie Connelly, director of government relations with the Maryland Farm Bureau, said farms in the state already have nutrient management plans and shouldn’t be expected to meet unreasonable regulations.
“In Maryland, farms are already doing a lot of what these reports seem to be asking for,” Connelly said.
She said if regulations get too tough, farms run the risk of disappearing from the state.
The report also calls for tighter regulation on suburban and urban land development. As stormwater runs down paved surfaces, it picks up chemicals that end up in the bay.
The federal agencies had 120 days to draft their reports after Obama signed the executive order in May. The order marked a decades-long battle over bay policy that reaches back to the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the 1983 formation of the Chesapeake Bay Program.
Environmentalists have been pushing the agency to do more to help the nation’s largest estuary, which is home to thousands of species of plants and animals. The latest goal is to have the bay clean by 2025.
The task will now be in the hands of the Federal Leadership Committee, a group set up by Obama’s executive order, which has until November 9 to craft a single, combined strategy to present to the public. By May 12, 2010, the committee is expected to write a final plan for the bay.
Capital News Service Reporter Catherine Krikstan contributed to this report.