Feds’ Bay cleanup plan: step forward or back?

By Tim Wheeler
November 10, 2009 6:30 AM, Baltimore SUN


The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Doug Siglin called the feds’ draft strategy " a step forward," but didn’t exactly bubble over with praise. "All in all, we’re pleased that the federal government is stepping up and creating a plan that cuts across federal agencies," he said in a brief telephone interview.

Environment Maryland’s Tommy Landers, though, called the draft strategy "a step backwards" from the Environmental Protection Agency’s suggestion in September that federal regulations should be expanded and stiffened on poultry and other livestock farms (aka "concentrated animal feeding operations") and on municipal storm water. In the announcement Monday, the feds said they’d give the states a chance first to beef up their pollution controls, and if their efforts were enough to meet water-quality goals, then EPA would hold off on new "bay-specific" rules.

"But states (have) proven themselves incapable of that over the past 25 years,” said Landers in a written release.

J. Charles Fox, EPA’s senior advisor on the bay, defended the agency’s stance, saying the restoration effort relies on a "close partnership" between the states and federal government. "We simply cannot succeed on our own," he said. With the possible exception of New York, he said, officials from the six bay watershed states have indicated a willingness to step up their efforts to reduce nutrient pollution enough to eliminate the bay’s "dead zone."

Even so, Fox said, states would only have until June of next year to lay out how they propose to strengthen pollution controls. And the feds would then have until December 2010 to decide if the states are serious. That’s the deadline EPA has set for completing a court-ordered "pollution diet" for the bay, imposing caps on nutrient pollution throughout the Chesapeake and its rivers that will then require state and local governments to crank down on sewage discharges, storm water and other runoff.

Still, with even green-leaning state officials like Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley expressing concern recently about his state’s poultry farmers facing tougher regulations than elsewhere in the country, it remains to be seen how this plays out.

While some bay advocates seem willing to trust the Obama administration to follow through on its tough talk, others are pinning hopes on Congress approving new Chesapeake Bay legislation that explicitly authorizes federal and state regulation of polluted runoff from farms and urban and suburban lands – and that also requires the federal government to act if states stumble again.

Most of the witnesses at a Senate hearing Monday welcomed such provisions in the bay bill drafted by Maryland’s Democratic Sen. Benjamin Cardin. A couple witnesses even suggested it could be a model for federal action in trying to protect and restore other threatened watersheds, such as the Gulf of Mexico or Great Lakes.

That prospect concerns others who distrust the federal government. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., issued a statement criticizing Cardin’s bill as "heavy-handed" and "a raw deal" for rural residents. A bevy of farm groups submitted letters of concern, and a former EPA official, now a lawyer in private practice, contended that the expansion of regulatory authority in Cardin’s bill was "unprecedented" and in some instances potentially unconstitutional.

Cardin, chairman of the subcommittee handling his bill, acknowledged the need to "tighten up" some of its provisions. But he insisted that the measure was drawn up in collaboration with state and federal officials, all of whom recognized a need to re-energize the restoration effort, which has repeatedly failed to meet cleanup goals.

"The bottom line is the bay is in trouble, and we’ve got to do a better job," Cardin said at the conclusion of the hearing. His bill, he said, is intended to "take the bay program to the next level."

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the draft federal strategy until Jan. 8. Federal officials then expect to refine the plan before finalizing.  To see the plan, and to comment, go here.

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 6:30 AM |