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MD, VA and DC Take Legal Action Over PA’s Failures in Bay Cleanup

The Attorneys General of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia filed a notice of intent to sue the Trump Administration’s EPA on Monday over its failure to enforce a landmark Chesapeake Bay cleanup agreement signed in 2010.

That agreement has a goal of forcing the Bay region states to put water pollution control programs in place within five years – by a deadline of 2025 -- to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the estuary by about 25 percent.

The problem is that Pennsylvania and New York have fallen far short in their plans and investments. And the overall health of the Bay has only declined since the agreement was signed, slipping from a rating of 47 out of 100 in 2010 to a 44 out of 100 last year, according to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh said he and his allies are taking legal action against the Trump EPA for failing to penalize Pennsylvania and New York for refusing to meet their Bay cleanup obligations. 

“The Bay is suffering,” Frosh said. “Maryland is bisected by the Chesapeake Bay. It’s the heart of our state.  And we can’t do this by ourselves.  We’re downstream of Pennsylvania, and we’re downstream of New York.  And even if we cleaned every last drop of nitrogen and phosphorus out of the Bay, we’d still be getting it from upstream.”

Significantly, EPA has imposed no penalties on the Bay’s biggest polluter, Pennsylvania, even though it has failed to upgrade its sewage plants to the same level as Maryland, Virginia and DC. Pennsylvania  also slashed the budget and staffing of its state environmental agency by about 15 percent during a decade when it was supposed to be ramping up its efforts.  The Commonwealth underfunded its water pollution control efforts by $300 million per year, according to critics.  And Pennsylvania has fallen short in requiring farmers to follow manure management plans or fence their cattle out of streams to reduce runoff pollution.

A spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Deborah Klenotic, said that a lawsuit over the Bay cleanup would be counterproductive because it would “distract and divert federal and state agency resources from our effort.”

“The Chesapeake Bay partnership and plans were always intended to be a collaborative effort among the seven jurisdictions in the watershed,” Klenotic said. “This lawsuit would undermine the cooperative spirit of that partnership.”

A cooperative spirit over reducing water pollution, however, has not even been demonstrated between the Democratic governor and Republican-led General Assembly in Pennsylvania.  While Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has pushed for more clean water investments, Republican lawmakers been driving in the opposite direction, cutting budgets and advancing the interests of the oil and gas industry.

In Virginia, Attorney General Mark Herring said he was motivated to take action against the Trump EPA in part by a public statement made by the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program director in January. Dana Aunkst asserted that the 2010 cleanup agreement was, in his view, simply “aspirational” but not enforceable.

“This is reflective of the Trump Administration’s effort to totally dismantle environmental protections and roll back so much of the progress that we’ve made,” said Attorney General Herring.

EPA spokeswoman Terry White sent an emailed statement saying the criticisms are without merit and that the Trump Administration “has consistently provided the Bay States and the District with the resources and technical assistance they need to do the job.”

That’s not true, according to U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a Democrat.

“The Trump Administration’s failure to enforce this is part of a pattern of negligence when it comes to environmental enforcement,” Van Hollen said. “And when it comes to the Chesapeake Bay, we’ve seen through their budgets that they simply don’t care. Early on, they proposed zero funding for the Chesapeake Bay Program.”

The next year, in 2018, the Trump Administration proposed a 90 percent cut in funding for the EPA Bay Program.  Both years, it was Congress that stepped in to restore funding to the Chesapeake Bay Program.

That pattern of neglect by the Trump Administration has included EPA even allowing Pennsylvania – in the midst of the Bay cleanup -- to continue its routine practice of intentionally piping raw human waste from the state capital, Harrisburg – including from the Governor’s Mansion and State Office Complex -- directly into the Bay’s biggest tributary, the Susquehanna River.

This is Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, who advocates for clean water in Pennsylvania.

“I can’t even say how many thousands of people come through the Capital office building and flush toilets all throughout that building, and that waste is essentially being piped right into the river,” Evgeniadis said. “We performed monitoring in the Susquehanna last summer that found levels of fecal coliform and E. coli bacteria in the river that are, on average, three times the state standard” for swimming or water contact recreation.

Public works projects like rebuilding Harrisburg’s sewers – and installing pollution control systems on Pennsylvania’s farms -- would create local jobs, stimulate the economy during a troubled time with the coronavirus and clean up the Chesapeake Bay.


Photo of Fishing Creek on the Chesapeake Bay by Tom Pelton

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.