Bay's 'Pollution Diet' Faces Many Challenges
Even without the lawsuit filed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the EPA's pollution reduction plan faces an uphill battle.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hit its first roadblock regarding the Chesapeake Bay's Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) on Jan. 10, when the American Farm Bureau Federation filed a law suit claiming the EPA was "overreaching" its authority.
This hiccup, however, could be one of many in a battle for the bay. Other challenges include pollution enforcement, funding sources for system upgrades, and the ability of state legislatures to act on new legislation.
At the end of last year, the EPA released the final TMDL for the bay, which will put a cap on how much phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment can flow into the bay and its estuaries.
The TMDL was a combination of individual Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) that were drafted by the six states within the bay's watershed, as well as the District of Columbia.
Many think the TMDL presents a real chance to finally make strides in bay restoration.
"This [TMDL] represents the best opportunity we've had in a while to clean up the bay," said Councilman Chris Trumbauer (D-6th District) in a recent interview.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) applauded the EPA for "drawing a line in the sand and holding states accountable for the bay's recovery," according to Tom Zopler, a CBF spokesman.
With such a wide-reaching and diverse mandate that stretches from rivers in the hills of New York to southern Virginia's seaport of Norfolk, the question of enforcement is a central issue in reaching pollution reduction goals.
And in such a large region with a mountain of varying state and local environmental regulations, David Sternberg, a spokesman for the EPA, acknowledges that "enforcement is an issue, because no law or regulation is any good if we can't ensure that it is working as intended."
Stronger Laws Needed?
Trumbauer agrees that there are already some critical laws on record but, in many cases, polluters are simply not adhering to them.
"The laws on the books haven't been enforced and a piece of the puzzle is strengthening them," said Trumbauer. "But we need to make fines an actual deterrent and not just the cost of doing business."
However, both the CBF and the EPA have admitted that some enforcement issues may require new state legislation, which could be difficult at a time when most state legislatures are already quarreling over budget reductions and how to jump-start the economy.
"It is unclear if new laws are necessary, but enhanced enforcement of existing laws certainly is," said Zolper. "In Maryland, CBF believes we will need the General Assembly to increase enforcement personnel and to hold the line on funding environmental programs."
While both of those tasks seem daunting for a legislature with a budget gap estimated at more than $1 billion, Zopler also acknowledged that legislation requiring farmers to adopt more robust conservation measures may be needed too.
Sternberg agrees, stating that "while these mandatory [agriculture] actions could possibly be achieved through expansion of existing regulation," to regulate agriculture pollution, "they could also require new state legislation."
The EPA isn't afraid of reprimanding states that don't make headway.
"If a state veers too far off course, we have made it very clear that EPA will take action as necessary," said Sternberg.
This action could come in a variety of forms, from withholding federal funds to the denial of permits, according to Zopler.
With enforcement an undoubtedly important component to clean-up efforts, perhaps more challenging are reductions in pollution from wastewater treatment plants and stormwater systems, which require more taxpayer dollars to be spent at a time when governments are trying to make do with less.
Describing stormwater and wastewater treatment plant upgrades as something that needs "a dedicated funding source," Trumbauer, an environmentalist and first-term councilman, stressed that upgrading and retrofitting the systems is a critical step in meeting pollution goals.
The so-called "flush fee," which raises money to upgrade wastewater treatment plants, gives Maryland a "leg-up," according to Zopler. However, the flush fee may need some upgrades itself.
"Costs are exceeding revenue, so very soon we must find a way to increase revenue," said Zopler. "We believe the fairest way is to increase the fee, to spread the cost to continue a very successful program."
Although Gov. Martin O'Malley has repeatedly stated that he'd propose a balanced budget without tax increases, the second-term Democrat asked lawmakers to "keep an open mind," regarding fee increases, at a luncheon in Annapolis on Jan. 11, according to an article in The Washington Post.
However, the verdict is still out on whether or not a hike in the "flush fee" would even make a hypothetical list of fee increases. State Senate President Mike Miller (D-Calvert) recently announced that he was in favor of a gas tax increase, as well as a raise in tuition at the state's universities.
In addition to the TMDL, the CBF would like to see Congress act on the Chesapeake Clean Water Act, which fizzled out in last year's lame duck session, due to the threat of a Republican filibuster. Zopler emanated a sense of optimism when speaking about the bill's chances of resuscitation in 2011.
"Republicans care about the bay too, and some of the first major efforts to save the bay involved the Nixon administration, Gov. Bob Ehrlich signed the "flush fee" bill, and more recently, Gov. Bob McDonnell in Virginia strengthened his state's pollution diet plan," said Zopler.
Even in the new era of divided government, the CBF has high hopes for the legislation.
"We believe the new Congress can rise to the occasion," said Zopler.