Don’t fall for the happy talk on the Bay: the EPA, Maryland’s governors and other leaders have failed us
A disgusted former state senator decries blown deadlines and lack of enforcement that’s left Chesapeake Bay nearly as polluted as it was 40 years ago. [OP-ED]
Above: Dead menhaden and other fish, killed by oxygen deprivation from an algal bloom, wash up on the shore of Stoney Creek off Maryland’s Magothy River. (Steve Droter Chesapeake Bay Program)
At a carefully orchestrated annual meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council in October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Bay state governors agreed to a one-year pause to recalibrate – read “abandon” – the much celebrated Chesapeake cleanup plan.
I’m talking about the EPA “pollution diet” aimed at cleansing the Bay of environmentally harmful nutrients – its Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL to use the regulatory term.
While touting the great successes of the Bay Program and state initiatives, these putative leaders of the restoration failed to propose any new measures to achieve the TMDL-required reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment set in 2010.
In planning to again move the goal posts, the parties failed to detail the abject failure to meet the 2025 deadline for TMDL reductions.
States collectively need to reduce Bay nitrogen loads by 72 million additional pounds to meet the 2025 goals after achieving a 30-million-pound reduction through 2021. Most must come from agriculture.
Current state plans will meet only 42% of nitrogen reductions and 64% of phosphorus reductions by 2025.
This marks strike three after agreed-upon pollution reductions set under 1987 and 2000 Bay agreements were missed by wide margins.
Advocates turned to the courts to try and prod the federal government to take action.
Clean Water Act lawsuits forced the EPA to impose the 2010 pollution diet and gave states 15 years to achieve the reductions to remove Bay waters from the impaired list.
The delay likely condemns future generations to a Chesapeake no better, and possibly even worse, than it is today.
But despite knowing for years that states were not meeting the dictated reductions, including the 60% reductions ordered by 2017, the EPA failed to impose any sanctions, sacrificing the Bay’s recovery on the altar of political expediency by refusing to enforce the TMDL.
The EPA has a long list of possible sanctions at their disposal that were shared with the states in 2009.
The states’ failure to do what needs to be done to turn the tide is being enabled by an enforcement agency. . . refusing to enforce the Clean Water Act.
Instead, we have the EPA’s agreed-upon “recalibration” delay that appears likely to condemn future generations to a Chesapeake no better, and possibly even worse, than it is today.
This capitulation occurs 39 years after the first Chesapeake Bay agreement was signed on December 9, 1983, in which the EPA and Bay states solemnly pledged – in front of 700 enthusiastic witnesses – to restore the Chesapeake.
I was one of those witnesses while serving as a state senator on the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
Under the 1983 agreement, the newly established Chesapeake Executive Council was to “assess and oversee the implementation of coordinated plans to improve and protect the water quality and living resources of the Chesapeake Bay.”
Those bright-eyed optimistic witnesses at the 1983 signing would now be hugely disappointed and alarmed, as am I.
If environmentalists had drummed up a doomsday scenario for failing to take the necessary actions for Bay restoration, we now have arrived at that nightmare scenario:
• Flesh-eating diseases are threatening life and limb as the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria has proliferated in Bay waters, clearly a result of unchecked nutrient pollution and warming water temperatures.
• Collapsed or collapsing fisheries – oysters, soft clams, shad, rockfish, sturgeon, crabs – are another result of this abysmal failure.
• The Bay’s critical underwater grasses are at a mere 67,470 acres, only 36% of the 185,000-acre goal to be achieved by 2010.
• The Chesapeake watershed lost 29,000 acres of tree canopy from 2014 to 2018, while the goal was to increase it by 2,400 acres by 2025.
The EPA data document a striking failure to meet Clean Water Act requirements.
A little more than 70% of Bay waters remain polluted (impaired), down only marginally from 74% in 1985.
Hogan’s Abysmal Record
After 50 years of environmental advocacy, I was thoroughly disgusted by the October Executive Council meeting, where the capitulation was greenwashed to appear as progress.
Only two of six Bay state governors bothered to show up – outgoing Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and comparatively new Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin – and both have their eyes set on the U.S. presidency.
At the council meeting, both governors touted their states’ “great” accomplishments.
Hogan ignored his abysmal record on the enforcement of critical water-quality regulations governing farm animal manure, wastewater from treatment plants and development projects.
He made no mention of his attempts to weaken forest protections against development. Or that during his two terms he has raked in millions of dollars from land development deals.
Youngkin has been notably anti-environmental.
He attacked longstanding regulations, tried to withdraw Virginia from a regional greenhouse gas compact and attempted to install Trump EPA chief Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, as the state’s natural resources secretary.
The parties touted the prospective influx of millions of federal dollars, as if these millions would substitute for needed regulatory actions.
The parties touted the prospective influx of millions of federal dollars to Bay programs under the Biden Inflation Reduction Act, as if these millions would substitute for needed regulatory actions to curb pollutants from agriculture as well as control development and the clearing of forests.
It would reverse a four decade trend if Maryland’s new governor, Wes Moore, made good on campaign promises of “accountability and enforcement” on the Bay. We shall see.
Yes, under the Bay Program, the Bay is better off than it would have been. The nutrient reductions achieved from sewage treatment plants have been extraordinary – a singular success attributable to tighter EPA regulations and financing.
Even this success, however, has been undercut in Baltimore by “catastrophic failures” in the upkeep and management of the city’s two sewage treatment plants, Back River and Patapsco, that have resulted in massive illegal releases of nutrients.
• What the wastewater looks – and smells – like coming out of the Back River sewage plant (4/19/22)
• MDE: Brown-orange gunk coming from Back River plant was partially treated sewage (4/20/22)
• Among the problems at Patapsco plant: potentially explosive substances in the sewage sludge (6/3/22)
• Back River staff is disorganized, demoralized and sometimes asleep on the job, state report finds (6/13/22)
• MES to stay at Back River sewage plant for another four months (1/18/23)
The regulatory lapses, as longtime Bay warrior and Patuxent Riverkeeper Fred Tutman noted, are beyond disappointing:
“The abandonment of the enforcement of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan is a betrayal of the aspirations of millions of residents and taxpayers. October 11 is a date which will live in infamy. How could we be betrayed in our quest to simply have our government assure us that it complies with Clean Water Act mandates?”
On December 9, 1983, we all expected that with 10 or 20 years of concerted effort, water quality would be vastly improved, living resources would thrive again and Bay waters would be safe.
These expectations have been crushed by repeated failures to rein in agricultural and development pollutants.
The house of cards that was the Bay restoration plan has collapsed, and right now we are left with only broken promises and a Chesapeake facing a bleak future.
• Gerald Winegrad served as a Maryland state senator and chaired the Senate Subcommittee on the Environment and Chesapeake Bay. This op-ed is adapted from a piece that first appeared in the Bay Journal.