Pennsylvania is ‘broken’ link in Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, report says

By: - May 29, 2019 6:30 am

This article was updated on Wednesday, May 28 to include new statements from the Department of Environmental Protection.

Pennsylvania’s efforts to reduce the flow of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay lag far behind its neighbors, and the state could face action from federal regulators if it doesn’t clean up its act soon.

That’s according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to restoring the 65,000-square-mile estuary in Maryland and Virginia.

In a report published Monday, the foundation said that poor planning and a lack of funding have derailed the Keystone State’s efforts to reduce agricultural runoff and stormwater pollution into the bay.

Pennsylvania is one of six states, plus the District of Columbia, that signed an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014, aimed at repairing the Chesapeake Bay by 2025.

The EPA can impose consequences on any jurisdiction that fails to uphold its end of the agreement. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Pennsylvania is at the top of that list.

“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and that is also true for the partnership working to restore water quality across the region,” William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in a statement. “Today, unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s link is not only weak, it is broken.”

Half of Pennsylvania is located in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. The Susquehanna River is the single largest tributary to the bay, providing half of its total freshwater flow.

The DEP acknowledges on its website that “the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay cannot be restored without Pennsylvania’s support.”

Even so, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found multiple shortcomings in a DEP draft plan to reduce pollution into the watershed by 2025. DEP is accepting public comments on the plan through June 7.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation claims that the plan would only achieve two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s pollution reduction goals and create a $250 million annual funding shortfall if it’s implemented as currently proposed.

While Pennsylvania’s wastewater facilities have made great strides to reduce pollution, the state has a lot more work to do to reduce stormwater runoff from its growing urban and suburban areas, the foundation said.

Given the number of farms in the state, Pennsylvania’s regulators also have to work with farmers to reduce harmful nitrogen outputs.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation says the state could curtail that pollution by training farmers to reduce soil and fertilizer runoff and properly manage animal waste.

Farmers need financial assistance and training to implement best conservation practices. But both are in short supply in the Keystone State, Harry Campbell, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Pennsylvania, said in a statement.

In comments emailed to the Capital-Star on Wednesday morning, a DEP spokeswoman said the foundation’s report “did not accurately describe” Pennsylvania’s draft plan and failed to account for all of the reductions it would generate.

“Our plan is grounded in reality and was developed with unprecedented stakeholder engagement and buy-in,” said DEP press secretary Elizabeth Rementer.

“We will continue those efforts despite the lack of support from the Foundation or the federal government,” she added.

For decades, pollution from homes, farms, and industrial properties running into the Chesapeake Bay created low-oxygen “dead zones” that couldn’t support marine animals and grasses.

A lengthy recovery effort has improved the estuary’s water quality and restored some of its biodiversity. But climate change threatens to disrupt the delicate ecosystem with high water temperatures and rising sea levels.

As a result, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says it’s essential for all the states in the estuary’s watershed to commit to aggressive pollution reduction plans.

Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland together account for 90 percent of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

As the result of a lawsuit brought by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 agreed to hold watershed states accountable for not meeting pollution reduction benchmarks. According to the foundation, punishments can include fines or funding cuts.

If the federal agency declines to enforce the plan under President Donald Trump, other actors may step up instead.

“If the EPA does not hold Pennsylvania accountable,” Baker said, “the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others must consider legal action.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.