Don’t fall for the happy gossip on the bay: The EPA, Maryland governors, and other leaders have failed us

At a carefully orchestrated annual meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council in October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Bay State governors agreed on a year-long hiatus to recalibrate — read “abandon” — the much-celebrated Chesapeake cleanup plan.

I’m talking about the EPA “pollution diet,” which aims to scour the bay of environmentally unfriendly nutrients – their Total Daily Load, or TMDL, to use the regulatory term.

While touting the great achievements of the Bay program and state initiatives, these putative restoration leaders did not propose new measures to meet the TMDL-required reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediments set in 2010.

In planning to move the goalposts again, the parties failed to explain in detail the woeful failure to meet the 2025 deadline for TMDL reductions.

States must collectively reduce nitrogen pollution in the Bay by an additional 72 million pounds to meet 2025 targets, after achieving a 30 million pound reduction by 2021. Most must come from agriculture.

Current government plans will only meet 42% of nitrogen reductions and 64% of phosphorus reductions by 2025.

This marks the third strike after falling short of agreed pollution reductions set under the Bay Accords of 1987 and 2000 by a wide margin.

Political expediency

Proponents turned to the courts to try to get the federal government to act.

Lawsuits against the Clean Water Act forced the EPA to enforce the 2010 Pollution Diet and gave states 15 years to achieve the reductions to remove Bay Waters from the Affected Waters List.

The delay is likely dooming future generations to a Chesapeake no better, and possibly worse, than it is today.

But despite knowing for years that states were failing to comply with dictated cuts, including the 60% cuts ordered through 2017, the EPA did not impose sanctions and sacrificed the Bay’s recovery on the altar of political expediency by refusing to pay the enforce TMDL.

The EPA has a long list of potential sanctions that was shared with states in 2009.

States’ failure to do what is necessary to turn the tide is made possible by an enforcement agency. . . Refusal to enforce the Clean Water Act.

Instead, we have the EPA-agreed “recalibration” delay that will likely condemn future generations to a Chesapeake no better, and possibly worse, than it is today.

Gerald Winegrad served 16 years in the Maryland Legislature, where he was responsible for many Bay initiatives. (mdsenate.com)

Doomsday scenario

This surrender comes 39 years after the signing of the first Chesapeake Bay Accords on December 9, 1983, in which the EPA and Bay States solemnly pledged to restore the Chesapeake in front of 700 enthusiastic witnesses.

I was one of those witnesses while serving as a state senator on the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

Under the 1983 agreement, the newly formed Chesapeake Executive Council was to “evaluate 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 to the signing of the contract in 1983 would now be just as disappointed and alarmed as I am.

If environmentalists had presented a doomsday scenario for not taking the necessary measures to restore the bay, we are now faced with this nightmare scenario:

• Flesh-eating diseases threaten life and limb like that Vibrio vulnificus Bacteria have proliferated in bay waters, clearly due to uncontrolled nutrient loading and warming of water temperatures.

• Collapsed or collapsing fisheries – oysters, mussels, allice shad, rockfish, sturgeon, crab – are another consequence of this abysmal failure.

• The Bay’s critical underwater grasses total only 67,470 acres, just 36% of the 185,000 acre target to be reached by 2010.

• The Chesapeake watershed lost 29,000 acres of tree canopy from 2014-2018, while the goal was to increase it by 2,400 acres by 2025.

EPA data documents a glaring failure to meet Clean Water Act requirements.

Just over 70% of Bay waters remain polluted (affected), only slightly less than 74% in 1985.

Hogan’s Abysmal Record

After 50 years of environmental advocacy, I was deeply disgusted by the October Executive Council meeting where the surrender was greenwashed to appear as progress.

Only two out of six Bay state governors have bothered to appear — outgoing Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and comparatively new Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin — and both have their eyes on the US presidency.

At the council meeting, both governors praised the “great” achievements of their states.

Hogan ignored his miserable record of enforcing critical water quality regulations for livestock manure, wastewater treatment plant effluent and development projects.

He did not say a word about his attempts to weaken forest protection against building. Or that he’s made millions of dollars in land development deals during his two terms in office.

Youngkin was particularly environmentally friendly.

He attacked longstanding regulations, tried to pull Virginia out of a regional greenhouse gas treaty and tried to install Trump’s EPA chief Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, as the state’s natural resources secretary.

The parties announced the expected inflow of millions of federal dollars, as if those millions would replace required regulatory action.

The parties touted the likely flow of millions of federal dollars into Bay programs under the Biden Inflation Reduction Act, as if those millions would replace the regulatory measures needed to curb agricultural pollutants and control forest development and deforestation.

It would reverse a four-decade trend if incoming Maryland Gov. Wes Moore lived up to his campaign promises of “accountability and enforcement” in the Bay. We will see.

Yes, under the bay program, the bay is better off than it would have been. The nutrient reductions achieved by wastewater treatment plants have been exceptional – a unique achievement attributed to stricter EPA regulations and funding.

But even that success has been undermined in Baltimore by “catastrophic failures” in the maintenance and management of the city’s two wastewater treatment plants, Back River and Patapsco, which have led to massive illegal spills of nutrients.

What the wastewater from the Back River treatment plant looks like – and smells like (04/19/22)

MDE: Brown-orange dirt from the Back River plant was partially treated wastewater (04/20/22)

The problems at the Patapsco plant: potentially explosive substances in the sewage sludge (6/3/22)

Back River staff are disorganized, demoralized and sometimes asleep on the job, according to the state report (06/13/22)

MES will remain at the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant for another four months (01/18/23)

The regulatory failings, as noted by longtime Bay warrior and Patuxent river warden Fred Tutman, are more than disappointing:

“Failing to enforce the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan is a betrayal of the aspirations of millions of residents and taxpayers. October 11th is a date that will live in shame. How could we be betrayed in our attempt to simply have our government reassure us that it is compliant with the Clean Water Act?”

On December 9, 1983, we all expected that after 10 or 20 years of concerted effort, water quality would be greatly improved, living resources would again thrive, and the waters of the bay would be safe.

Those expectations have been dashed by repeated failures to contain agricultural and developmental pollutants.

The house of cards that was the Bay restoration plan has collapsed, and for now we’re left with broken promises and a Chesapeake facing a bleak future.

Gerald Winrad served as a Maryland State Senator and chaired the Senate Subcommittee on the Environment and Chesapeake Bay. This comment is an adaptation of an article that first appeared in the Bay Journal.

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