Final Cleanup Plans for Pennsylvania and Maryland Fall Short

Image credit: NASA/USGS/Landsat 5

By Katlyn Schmitt, WKC Staff Attorney

In late August, the six states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the District of Columbia submitted their final clean up plans, known as the Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs), which are required as a part of the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Chesapeake Bay TMDL, or Bay Cleanup Plan, was established in 2010 as a multi-state effort to reduce overall nutrient pollution entering the Bay by 2025. To help achieve this goal, EPA set nutrient reduction goals tailored to each state.

The Chesapeake Bay TMDL was established at a time when the Bay was suffering from poor health conditions. Nutrient pollution — like phosphorus and nitrogen — was at an all time high and was negatively impacting the health of the Bay, causing widespread dead zones and a sharp decline in aquatic populations. 

While each state says they are committed to meeting their clean up goals by 2025 under the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, many of the final plans lack the necessary details to outline how they will accomplish their goals. The draft plans submitted earlier this year were also inadequate and the EPA concluded they did not contain enough details about how they would be implemented. 

Pennsylvania 

Pennsylvania contributes by far the most pollution of any state — about twice as much as Maryland — but has done the least to meet its cleanup obligations. That is why when looking at the final plans submitted by Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania — Pennsylvania’s plan gives the most cause for concern. Under the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, Pennsylvania needs to cut back on nitrogen pollution by at least 40 million pounds a year to meet its 2025 goals. In reality, the state is incredibly behind and will likely fail to meet its goals on nitrogen pollution by more than 9 million pounds a year.

Pennsylvania’s final plan also falls short of $324 million in needed funding for clean water programs and practices that are needed for the state to meet their TMDL targets. This funding shortfall was increased by $67 million from the draft plan. Without adequate funding, it’s unclear how Pennsylvania will even have a fighting chance at meeting their goals. 

The final plan, similar to the draft plan, still does not adequately account for growth, nor does it account for the current poultry boom. The plan also does not include enough details on how it will incentivize stormwater permit holders to help the state reduce its overall nutrient pollution outputs. For instance, it has recommended actions for permit holders, but no hard and fast requirements that will encourage permit holders to act on these recommendations. 

A recent report by Environmental Integrity Project and Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association demonstrates yet another reason why Pennsylvania needs to get serious about its cleanup plan. The report found that Pennsylvania’s capital was releasing an increasing amount of sewage mixed with stormwater — 789 million gallons in 2016 and 1.4 billion gallons last year — into the Susquehanna River.

While the state is expected to meet its phosphorus reduction goals, its failure to meet its nitrogen reduction goals could translate into a failure of the region to meet the 2025 targets under the Chesapeake Bay TMDL.

Maryland 

Maryland, like Pennsylvania, has a nitrogen pollution problem. While Maryland’s plan is more ambitious than Pennsylvania’s, the final plan submitted by Maryland lags far behind Virginia and the District of Columbia in progress toward reducing nitrogen pollution. 

In order to meet its nitrogen pollution goals, Maryland will need to increase its rate of clean up by six times the current rate. During the first two phases of the WIP, Maryland and Virginia made a lot of progress towards their nitrogen reduction goals through upgrades to wastewater treatment plants. As most of the planned upgrades have already taken place, it’s unclear how Maryland expects to dramatically increase the rate of the state’s cleanup. The final plan outlines programs and plans that are already in place and fails to offer any details for new programs and funding that will get the state to its needed rate of cleanup. 

Maryland’s final plan also does not adequately address issues like climate change and population growth that will contribute additional pollution loads to the Chesapeake Bay. The plan even admits that these are challenges that it does not have the capacity to address, despite the fact that these challenges will affect the state’s ability to achieve its 2025 TMDL goals. For instance, climate change is expected to contribute more than 2.2 million pounds of nitrogen and 114,000 pounds of phosphorus to the Bay. Putting off the hard work on issues that are very much a reality for Maryland’s waterways and the Chesapeake Bay is simply unacceptable. 

Virginia 

The final plan that Virginia submitted to the EPA is the strongest of the three states. Unlike Maryland and Pennsylvania, Virginia adjusted their numeric targets for pollution reduction to specifically account for climate change (and the additional pollution loads it will cause). 

Likewise, Virginia’s plan was the strongest in terms of incentivizing permanent practices in agriculture that have major water quality benefits — like stream reforestation and grazing conservation. Maryland’s plan, on the other hand,  focuses on incentivizing temporary practices — like planting cover crops annually. While this practice is beneficial, nothing can replace the benefits of permanent practices that will help maintain healthy waterways through 2025 and beyond.  

Its up to the EPA to provide the necessary resources, oversight, and assistance to bring all the states to their 2025 goals under the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. The states and the EPA must step up in a collaborative way to address the challenges we face ahead — afterall, this plan designed between Chesapeake Bay states and the federal government is the largest cleanup plan ever. The future of the Bay and the health of our local waterways and communities depend on state plans that stop pushing the hard work down the road. With increasing extreme weather events and rising sea levels, we don’t have time to waste.