Executive Council debates whether to deal with toxics in new Bay agreement
Next year, 20 years after approving a strategy that called for a Bay “free of toxics,” the Chesapeake Executive Council will consider something else: a Bay agreement free of any reference to toxics.
Controlling toxic pollution has been an issue for the Chesapeake since the EPA released the results of its multi-year Bay study in 1983 that identified toxic pollution as one of the factors in its decline.
Numerous studies over the years have affirmed the continued threat to aquatic life — and human health — posed by toxics in the Bay and its tributaries.
The Executive Council approved toxics reduction strategies in both 1994 and 2000. The council includes the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania; the District of Columbia mayor; the EPA administrator; and chairman of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents state legislatures.
Yet a report from federal agencies released earlier this year concluded PCBs and mercury had widespread impacts on fish in the region, and that many contaminants of emerging concern, such as pharmaceuticals, were suspected of having adverse effects on fish and wildlife.
Figures released by the Bay Program this fall showed that 72.2 percent of the Bay segments were impaired by toxic pollution in 2012, up from from 66.3 percent in 2006.
But with states already struggling to meet their nutrient reduction obligations, reaching any consensus to address — or even research — issues involving chemical contaminants in the Chesapeake and its watershed in the new Bay agreement has itself become a toxic issue.
A first draft of the agreement, released for comment in early summer, excluded any specific toxic reduction goal, and received sharp criticism for that omission during an initial round of public review.
That led to two commitments being proposed in a revised draft. One called for research to improve knowledge about the impacts of contaminants of emerging concern on the health of fish and wildlife in the Bay and its watershed; the other called for identifying practices that could reduce PCBs and mercury pollution to the Bay and develop an implementation strategy by 2015.
At a September meeting of the Bay Program’s Principals’s Staff Committee, a panel that includes state agency heads and senior federal environmental officials, both were rejected.
Virginia, West Virginia and New York representatives voted against the research commitment. Those three jurisdictions were joined by Pennsylvania and Delaware in voting against the commitment to develop strategies to address PCBs and mercury.
Under rules followed at the meeting, it took only three “no” votes to strike a provision from the agreement. Voting participants included representatives from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Delaware, New York, the District of Columbia, the EPA (representing federal agencies) and the Chesapeake Bay Commission. Though not currently members of the state-federal Bay Program partnership, West Virginia, New York and Delaware are expected to be signatories of the new agreement and become formal members.
When the issue came up during a news conference after Thursday’s Executive Council meeting, Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Doug Domenech defended the idea of leaving toxics out of the agreement, saying state and federal agencies had other programs to deal with toxic contaminants, and that Bay efforts should remain focused on controlling nutrients.
“It is not a question of whether toxics are good or bad. It is a question that there are other environmental regulations that are already working on those issues, either at the state level or the federal level,” Domenech said. “Our sense was that this Bay agreement doesn’t necessarily have to have everything in it to be effective.”
But others held out the possibility that a toxics goal may emerge in the final agreement, expected to be signed in late spring, if toxics become a major issue during the public comment period later this winter.
Given comments received about the omission of a toxics goal in the first draft, officials expect it will likely receive widespread comments in the next round of comments too.
“We will consider those public comments as we move forward with finalizing aspects of the agreement,” said Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who also noted that the Executive Council will be able to work with “the new governor of Virginia,” Terry McAuliffe, on the issue after he takes office in January.
The lack of a new toxics goal is, in fact, already generating attention.
The Bay Program’s Citizens Advisory Committee told the Council in a letter that “not including a toxics contaminant goal in the Agreement is a glaring omission, particularly since there are emerging threats like endocrine disruptors that have impact on fish and human health.”
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the region’s largest environmental organization, said in a letter to Executive Council that the lack of a toxics goal in the agreement, as along with the omission of any reference to climate change, “is incredibly short-sighted, and quite frankly an embarrassment, for what is considered to be the ‘premier’ restoration program in the country.”