Battling for the bay: Chesapeake Bay cleanup likely heading to court
The Chesapeake Bay takes in water from 150 major rivers flowing from six states, including the Susquehanna here in New York. It is an invaluable estuary from which a dying breed of watermen still make their living, but it is getting harder for them to do so.
Pollution of the bay’s waters is a product mainly to unsanitary stormwater runoff, over-fertilization and pollution from animal wastes. Deforestation, wetland destruction from agricultural, urban and suburban development, and sea level rise caused by global climate change are also contributing factors. Back in the 1970s the bay was found to contain one of the planet’s first identified marine “dead zones,” where waters were so depleted of oxygen that they were unable to support life, resulting in massive fish kills. The dead zones still exist today, and they are estimated to kill 75,000 tons of clams and worms each year. This loss of bottom-dwelling sea life is responsible for weakening the base of the bay’s forage food, robbing the blue crab of a primary food source. These dead zones result in part from large algal blooms, nourished by the runoff from residential, farm and industrial waste throughout the watershed.
Efforts to clean up the bay have been underway since 1972 when the Clean Waters Act stated “The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” Almost 50 years have gone by and the Chesapeake is still on the federal government’s list of “dirty waters.”
In 1983, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement with the state of Maryland, the Commonwealths of Pennsylvania and Virginia, and the District of Columbia recognizing the need to act to clean up the Bay. Then, in 1987, they signed a new agreement that required a 40 percent reduction in nutrient pollution to the bay by 2000.
In June of 2017, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) issued an interim evaluation of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania’s progress to determine if they were on track to achieve their 2017 goal of practices in place to achieve 60 percent of their pollution reductions. The report noted that progress reducing pollution from wastewater is on track in all-states, but efforts to reduce polluted runoff from agriculture and urban and suburban areas is lagging.
For years, the Foundation has been concerned about the lack of progress in reducing nitrogen pollution, especially in Pennsylvania. That concern was heightened when Pennsylvania released its plan for reducing pollution between now and the 2025 deadline. The plan has a funding shortfall of more than $300 million annually, and even if the money were allocated the plan falls 25 percent short of the nitrogen goal.
What’s even more alarming is the EPA’s recently announced plan to rescind the protection of many streams and wetlands from the safeguards afforded by Clean Waters Act protocols. Despite the advice against the repeal of these protections from environmental experts, and even its own scientific advisers, the agency says these are unnecessary regulations and appears to be caving to the requests from industry and farm groups
As a result, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is preparing a Notice of Intent to Sue the EPA for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act. Currently, the Foundation is in discussion with a number of potential partners concerning the legal strategies it can use to force EPA to comply with the law. For CBF, litigation is a last resort. However, with bay restoration and clean water for future generations at risk, it says it has no other alternative due to the EPA’s failure to act.