The third time didn’t prove to be the appeal for Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, at least as far as the US Environmental Protection Agency was concerned.
Although the state has allocated significant additional funding this year to reduce pollution in the bay, the EPA said its third clean-up plan in four years is still underfunded and still falling short of clean-up goals.
As a result, the agency says it will maintain increased oversight of the state’s water quality programs. But it didn’t outline any new measures it would take to get the state on track.
“Our conclusion is that it still falls short,” said Adam Ortiz, administrator of EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region, which includes most of the Bay’s watershed. “The upshot of this is that we will maintain our improved enforcement stance toward the State of Pennsylvania for the foreseeable future.”
It’s the latest salvo in a long-running dispute between the agency and the state that sends the most water-polluting nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) into the bay, which is not actually within its borders.
While other states have made strides, mostly through upgrading wastewater treatment plants, the nutrient pollution that Pennsylvania is sending to the Bay comes mostly from more than 30,000 farms where reducing nutrients is harder.
The EPA and environmental groups claim that the state has long lacked adequate funding and programs to make the needed improvements on these farms. Pennsylvania officials acknowledge the state is lagging behind, but claim the EPA underestimates its actual progress.
The dispute has found its way to court. After the state presented a plan in 2019 that fell short of 2025 cleanup goals, Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, along with the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and others, filed suits against the EPA for not encouraging the state to make greater progress had pushed.
Of these jurisdictions, only the District of Columbia is on track to meet its own remediation goals. Measured in pounds of nutrients, however, Pennsylvania is significantly further behind. This lawsuit is still pending.
Last December, Pennsylvania submitted a revised plan that again fell short of targets. Citing this deficiency, the EPA announced in April that it would increase inspections and enforcement of clean water regulations statewide.
In July, Pennsylvania submitted a third plan that included $154 million in additional spending.
However, in an analysis released Nov. 21, the EPA said its conclusion remains the same. The new plan still only meets 72% of the state’s nitrogen reduction target, 99% of its phosphorus target, and 93% of its sediment target, according to the EPA — numbers that have changed little from previous plans.
The agency said the state failed to provide adequate detail on measures and timetables that would demonstrate increased implementation of environmental protection practices.
While the state has secured additional money, it came from federal COVID relief funding with no obligation for additional state contributions if the federal money runs out after next year. And the funding push is still far from filling the roughly $325 million-a-year gap the state faces for its pollution reduction needs.
“Without long-term earmarked funding and programmatic commitments, EPA lacks confidence that Pennsylvania will meet its share of the 2025 goal,” the agency said in its review. “The EPA is confident that Pennsylvania will continue to make incremental progress, but not at the accelerated pace needed to meet its portion of the 2025 goal.”
Because of their shortage, the EPA said it will continue its increased oversight of water discharge permits, livestock facilities and stormwater systems in the state it began this summer. It also said it would likely divert federal grant funds related to the Bay from state agencies to nonprofits, conservation districts and others in hopes of getting better results.
“We are disappointed that the [cleanup plan] not seeing the progress we were hoping for,” Ortiz said. “So our ‘tough love’ policy will continue.”
Alison Prost, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for Conservation and Restoration, said in a statement that while the organization appreciates “the EPA’s renewed commitment,” it’s not enough to “get Pennsylvania across the finish line.”
Prost called for more “accountability” that she hopes the lawsuit against the EPA will bring. “We remain hopeful that negotiations in this case will result in the necessary actions and sustained funding needed to restore clean water, improve local economies and preserve Pennsylvania’s way of life,” she said.
Deborah Klenotic, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said the state remains committed to working with federal agencies and others on projects that “show real results on the ground” that would benefit from recent funding increases.
“Pennsylvania plans to continue the significant work that is now underway by many partners to improve our local water quality and therefore the health of the bay,” she said. “We know through modeled and monitored progress that what we are doing is working, and we are committed to continuing and increasing our efforts.”
The state has long claimed that EPA’s accounting system fails to recognize many environmental protection practices employed on farms statewide, which accounts for a significant portion of the nutrient reduction deficit, and that water quality monitoring suggests greater progress is being made achieved as indicated by the computer models used to assess progress.
Problems with counting and tracking conservation practices such as cover crops, stream buffering and changes in tillage techniques were also recognized by others in the state Bay Program partnership, but they could not agree on a strategy to address the problem. The EPA and US Department of Agriculture recently established a task force to address the issue.
But EPA officials said they could not account for nutrient reductions from such efforts until agreement was reached on how to do so. And even if changes reduce Pennsylvania’s deficit, they said the state would remain far from its goals.
“We’re looking forward to figuring out some of those things,” Ortiz said. “But in the meantime, we have to stick to the guidelines that the partnership has set out. And we have the same standard for all states.”