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April 21, 2023

EPA to ensure Pennsylvania reduces pollution in the Chesapeake Bay

The federal agency settled a lawsuit that claimed it failed to pressure the state to mitigate nutrient and sediment runoff

To ensure Pennsylvania reduces pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will ramp up federal oversight, according to a proposed settlement agreement.  

The proposed deal, which has been given a 30-day public comment period before approval, stems from a 2020 lawsuit filed by officials in Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. The lawsuit claimed the EPA had failed to ensure that Pennsylvania and New York were doing enough to reach 2025 pollution reduction goals that they had previously agreed upon with the other states. New York later was dropped from the lawsuit after changing its reduction plans.

Pennsylvania's goals aim to mitigate pollution across more than 11,000 miles of in-state streams that flow downstream to the Chesapeake Bay. They include increased tracking of nitrogen reductions from sources not yet documented. Pennsylvania finalized its plans in July, seeking to reduce its nitrogen runoff by 32.5 million pounds, State Impact reported. 

Part of the problem is that the Conowingo Dam, which was constructed on the Susquehanna River in 1929, has trapped 90% of its sediment capacity, periodically allowing sediment and nutrients to flow into the bay, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Historic rainfall and flooding in Pennsylvania over the last several years has compounded the issue by carrying even more sediment over the dam. 

Pennsylvania has lagged on making progress toward its goals, and the lawsuit claimed the EPA failed to hold the state accountable for its promise to maintain a "pollution diet" that sets limits in the Chesapeake for nitrogen and phosphorus sediment, the Associated Press reported. 

The pollution, which often comes from farms and cities, can flow into the bay and create low-oxygen zones where plants and animals are unable to survive. 

In the proposed settlement, the EPA has agreed to pressure Pennsylvania to reduce its waste and pollution in the Chesapeake by issuing notices of violation and notices of noncompliance when necessary. The EPA will continue to evaluate Pennsylvania's progress annually and publish its findings online

The EPA also would be able to enhance its oversight of other pollution sources in Pennsylvania, like factories, livestock operations and sewage treatment plants, according to the proposal. The agency would evaluate the counties that contribute the most nitrogen and sediment to the bay and make recommendations to the state on how to mitigate the issues. 

The proposal also calls for additional grant funding to help Pennsylvania make changes to its pollution reduction efforts and ensure the state can meat its goals on time. 

Pennsylvania's most recent plan to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake is utilizing $154 million in COVID-19 pandemic funding for a program to help farmers use more sustainable practices and prevent sediment from entering the watershed. Maryland and Virginia have had similar programs for more than a decade, Lancaster Farming reported. 

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which was among the groups that filed lawsuits against the EPA, said the EPA will focus on seven counties that contribute the most pollution to rivers and streams: Lancaster, York, Bedford, Cumberland, Centre, Franklin and Lebanon. 

"The proposed settlement is a win for local waterways, healthy communities, and the Chesapeake Bay," said Hilary Harp Falk, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "EPA focusing on concerted remedial action to address some of the most severe problems in Pennsylvania provides accountability and reasonable assurance that Bay restoration will succeed. This is a welcome change." 

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America, covering 64,000 square miles across New York, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. The Chesapeake Bay Program, established under former President Ronald Regan, has been around for 40 years.