EPA on Chesapeake Bay cleanup: talk like Reagan, walk like Teddy Roosevelt

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is on an end-of-year tour of Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions, alerting everyone that this time they are serious about saving the Bay.  They passed through Northern Virginia on December 14, briefing government officials in the afternoon and holding a public session in the evening at Falls Church.

A series of state/Federal commitments since 1983 have suggested we would save the bay by 2000, then by 2010…  The latest proposal is to require that all the necessary action items to clean up the water must be in operation by 2025.

Why should we believe this time that anything is different? Will EPA under Obama be any different than EPA under the Bushes, Clinton, or Reagan?  Are Federal threats of “consequences,” if states fail to curb pollution, for real?

What’s driving the process, despite the extraordinary complexity of the scientific/political challenges, is a June 11, 1999 consent decree where Virginia committed to fulfill its obligations under the Clean Water Act.  The politicians change with every election, but despite the temptation to dither and prevaricate, the court order keeps forcing action.  (In Florida, a court is already using the Clean Water Act to force the state to establish numerical limits on runoff from agricultural lands.)

For the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, EPA will complete 92 coordinated TMDL studies (35 involving Virginia) by December, 2010.  The studies will determine the amount of pollution the Bay can absorb from point, nonpoint, and natural background sources.

By December 1, 2010, the scientific studies will define how much nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment we need to reduce, in order to improve the bay’s water quality (particularly the levels of dissolved oxygen in the summer). States will then be required to craft Implementation Plans to tackle the tough political choices for who reduces what, and where.  Implementation Plans are due by November 1, 2011.

Pollution limits defined in the TMDL’s will be a “hard cap,” not indexed for population growth.  As Northern Virginia population increases, somehow we will have to reduce the per capita discharges of  nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment.

In summary:
– we are discharging more pollution than the bay can absorb now
– more people living in the bay’s watershed will increase total pollution
– a Federal court is forcing action, after 25 years of various studies
– EPA will do one more analysis in the 92 TMDL’s for the bay watershed
– the states will allocate the pain and set pollution limits for each jurisdiction, in the Implementation Plans

Bottom Line: farmers, developers, and urbanized areas will have to change current practices.  Someone will have to spend money, if implementation will move from talk to on-the-ground projects.

EPA officials weren’t born yesterday.  They ducked the political challenge of assigning “pollution budgets” to individual jurisdictions.  Governor McDonnell will get that responsibility for Virginia in 2011.

What will happen if Virginia proposes inadequate or ineffective solutions in its Implementation Plans for each TMDL?  EPA officials are blunt: EPA will “trust but verify” compliance, and there will be “consequences” if states do not meet the limits defined in the TMDL studies.  EPA is threatening to reduce levels in existing pollution discharge permits, scaring the wastewater treatment (sewage plant) operators, but their biggest hole card is to threaten reductions in Federal grants for highways.

EPA is walking softly now, but carrying the big stick.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] of the Virginia Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) Implementation Plan.”   Virginia’s Watershed Implementation Plan is due to be finished in November, […]


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