Citing slow Bay progress, EPA steps up oversight of Pennsylvania agriculture
Officials mull actions to help state get back on track.
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The EPA plans to ramp up oversight of Pennsylvania’s programs to control farm runoff, which it says are falling far short of what is needed to meet the state’s nitrogen reduction obligations for the Chesapeake Bay.
The agency’s decision could theoretically set the stage for it to take drastic efforts, such as requiring wastewater treatment plants to achieve additional nutrient reductions to make up for any agricultural shortfall — a step that would be costly and controversial.
But EPA officials stressed that their first course of action is to help the state get back on track through cooperative means such as added assistance, though they indicated the agency would likely play a greater role in directing how the state uses federal water grant money.
The action in June stems from the agency’s review of states’ progress during 2012–13 in implementing their watershed implementation plans, which are intended to meet Bay nutrient and sediment reduction goals, as well as an analysis of additional actions each state plans through 2015.
Officials said that all of the states, including Pennsylvania, have made overall strides in reducing Bay pollution.
“I want to compliment all of the jurisdictions. There is a lot of great, hard work going on out there,” said Shawn Garvin, administrator of EPA Region III, which includes most of the Bay watershed. “But we also recognize, and we have from the very beginning, that this is not going to be an easy effort, and we’re going to face challenges.”
The Bay cleanup plan calls for taking all actions needed to restore water quality by 2025, with 60 percent those pollution control actions in place by 2017.
Overall, the watershed is on track to meet phosphorus and sediment reduction goals but it is facing a large shortfall for nitrogen. By the end of 2015, the EPA is projecting the region to be about 6 million pounds of nitrogen short of the trajectory needed to meet the 2017 goal. Almost all of the shortfall is in Pennsylvania, which is actually projecting a slight nitrogen increase over the next two years.
Pennsylvania contributes more nitrogen to the Bay than any other state — accounting for 111 million pounds of the 245 million estimated to have reached the Bay in 2013, or about 45 percent of the total. Agriculture is the largest nutrient source in the state, contributing about 61 million pounds — almost a quarter of all nitrogen from the entire Bay watershed.
“As Pennsylvania goes, so goes the Bay restoration,” said Jon Capacasa, director of EPA Region’s III’s Water Protection Division. “We are concerned that this needs close attention, and the EPA is willing to work with the state and augment their efforts and try to assist them in getting back on track. But this is a serious matter that we want to work with the state to address.”
Of the roughly 24 million pounds of nitrogen reductions needed from the beginning of 2014 though 2017, about three-quarters needs to come from Pennsylvania, according to computer model estimates from the state-federal Bay Program. The state would need more nitrogen reductions from its agricultural sector in the next four years than were achieved from 1985 through 2013.
The EPA’s decision to put Pennsylvania’s agriculture sector into a “backstop” level of oversight — its highest level— signals that agency officials believe the state is not only falling short of needed pollution reductions, but that current plans and state programs are not adequate to fix the problem. It also means the agency plans to take direct action to address the problem.
Officials acknowledged challenges facing the state. It has more small farms and communities to work with than other states, making outreach a particular challenge.
The EPA officials said they planned to increase training for personnel, and offered to ramp up their own inspection efforts to help manage the workload. They also may exert leverage over the use of federal grant money. Options could include steering more funding into cover crops and forest buffers — two highly effective practices for controlling nitrogen. Pennsylvania is the only state in the watershed that does not have a cost-share program for cover crops.
In a worst-case scenario, the EPA could require regulated sectors — primarily wastewater treatment plants — to make up any shortfall from the agricultural sector. But that would be hugely expensive.
“We are going to elevate the discussion with Pennsylvania DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] about policy initiatives or other programmatic initiatives that help close the gap, whether it’s cover crop programs or other things that can be ramped up,” Capacasa said. “That is the discussion we want to have before we move pounds around.”
Pennsylvania’s nitrogen gap is so large that it would fall short of its goals even if it eliminated all wastewater discharges.
Pennsylvania officials sharply disputed the EPA’s characterization of its agricultural programs.
“This move slights Pennsylvania’s true progress in this sector and discounts the hard work of our partners in the agricultural community,” said Amanda Witman, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania’s DEP.
Witman said the state has installed more runoff control practices than have been credited, and it is working to better track such efforts. It has also steered more funding into programs to help the Bay. She also noted that both model estimates and water quality monitoring have shown reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment concentrations since the mid-1980s. “We expect that downward trend to continue long into the future as we work with our partners in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to restore and protect this vital natural resource,” Witman said.
Agriculture is not the state’s only problem. Pennsylvania’s stormwater sector was already under “backstop” oversight. And the EPA’s review also found shortcomings with the state’s nutrient trading program. Because of its concerns, the agency recently stopped approving discharge permits for facilities that relied on trades.
Of the four sectors EPA reviewed — agriculture. wastewater, urban/suburban stormwater and trading/offset programs — three required elevated levels of oversight.
No other state had more than one sector that needed elevated oversight, and no other state had any sectors in the “backstop” category — the one in which EPA believes direct federal assistance and intervention is needed.
The increased scrutiny stems from the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load established by the EPA in December 2010, which established the maximum amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment the Bay could receive and meet its water quality goals. The Baywide limits were then divided into allocations for each state and pollution source sector: wastewater, stormwater and agriculture.
States wrote watershed implementation plans to show how they would meet those goals and, to ensure the effort stays on track, they outlined in two-year increments what actions they expect to take, such as program or regulatory changes, and the amount of pollution reductions they expect.
The EPA reviews the progress in meeting those two-year objectives, known as milestones, to see whether each state is making adequate progress, or whether the agency needs to step up oversight.
The review released in June covered the first full two-year milestone period since the TMDL was finalized, as well as state plans for 2014–15.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William Baker praised the EPA’s review, saying its actions “represent the leadership the Bay and all the rivers and streams need, both strong and fair.”
While the review showed that “each of the Bay jurisdictions must do better,” Baker said it also showed that Pennsylvania “must demonstrate leadership immediately to improve its pollution reduction efforts. People upstream and down will benefit.”
“Holding the states accountable for meeting their commitments is a historic event in Bay restoration efforts, one which will ensure that we leave a legacy of clean water to our children and future generations,” Baker said.
Highlights of Reviews for DE, DC, MD, NY, VA, WV
The EPA’s review of 2012–13 milestone results, as well as states’ 2014–15 milestone plans, examined both progress by states as a whole, and of individual sectors, which include wastewater, agriculture, stormwater and the development of offset/trading programs to track and offset growth.
Based on those reviews, the agency put each sector in one of three categories:
- Ongoing Oversight: The EPA believes jurisdictions have good strategies and are making implementation progress. They only need the normal level of oversight.
- Enhanced Oversight: The EPA is putting a state on notice that it has concerns about its ability to implement its strategies because pollution reductions are not on track and/or lack the adequate programs to achieve goals for 2017 and 2025.
- Backstop: The EPA has identified substantial problems with the implementation of pollution controls, the adequacy of programs to fully implement future commitments or inadequate future commitments to meet goals. Beyond oversight, the EPA would initiate specific federal actions, including federal assistance, directing the expenditure of grants, or increasing enforcement actions, to get a state on track.
- Pollution: The state fell slightly short of its 2013 nitrogen target but missed its phosphorus target by a wider mark. It achieved its 2025 sediment goal. Part of the reason for the nutrient shortfall was that an ongoing re-evaluation of best management practice effectiveness by the state-federal Bay Program partnership concluded that some widely used practices were less effective than previously thought. As a result, the EPA said the state is making implementation progress but must accelerate efforts to meet the 2017 goal.
- Oversight: No change. Agriculture, urban/suburban stormwater, wastewater, and trading/offsets all remained in Ongoing Oversight.
- Issues: The EPA said it would consider moving the state’s agricultural sector into Enhanced Oversight unless it details how it will fund and accelerate the implementation of high-priority nutrient control practices and increase the number of permits issued for large livestock operations. It also said it could move the state’s wastewater sector into Enhanced Oversight if expired permits for significant wastewater dischargers are not issued by the end of the year.
District of Columbia
- Pollution: The District met its 2013 milestones for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. Nitrogen reductions are on track to meet 2017 targets, but phosphorus and sediment are projected to increase in 2015 and are not on track to meet meet the 2017 target. When the district completes upgrades to the Blue Plains treatment plant and completes a combined sewer overflow mitigation project, it is expected to achieve all 2025 goals.
- Oversight: No changes. Urban/suburban stormwater, wastewater, trading/offsets all remain in Ongoing Oversight.
- Issues: No major issues.
- Pollution: The state met its nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment targets for 2013, and expected reductions through 2015 should keep it on track to meet the 2017 goal.
- Oversight: No changes. Agriculture, urban/suburban stormwater, wastewater and trading offsets were all in Ongoing Oversight.
- Issues: The state is behind schedule for issuing some stormwater permits, and the EPA said it could downgrade the urban/suburban sector to Enhanced Oversight if the state misses new deadlines.
- Pollution: The state achieved nitrogen and phosphorus goals, but fell short of sediment targets for 2013. Anticipated reductions through 2015 should keep it on track to meet 2017 goals for phosphorus and sediment, though the state will need to accelerate nitrogen reductions.
- Oversight: No changes. Agriculture, urban/suburban stormwater, and trading/offsets remain in Ongoing Oversight while Wastewater remained in Enhanced Oversight.
- Issues: The state is behind schedule for issuing a new general permit for large livestock operations, and also raised the size of operations needing a permit from 200 to 300. The EPA wants to explore low-cost ways to achieve additional nitrogen reductions from its wastewater treatment plants.
- Pollution: The state achieved its 2013 milestones for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. Anticipated reductions through 2015 should keep it on track to meet 2017 goals.
- Oversight: No changes. Agriculture, wastewater and trading/offsets remain in Ongoing Oversight while urban/suburban stormwater remains in Enhanced Oversight.
- Issues: The state met nutrient goals in part because wastewater treatment plant reductions were greater than expected. It will need to accelerate the implementation of high-priority agricultural practices to keep on track. The state is behind schedule for reissuing expired stormwater permits with more stringent discharge limits for many of its largest municipalities.
- Pollution: The state met its 2013 target for nitrogen and phosphorus and has achieved its 2025 goal for sediment. Its 2015 milestones should keep it on track to meet the 2017 target, though nitrogen reductions need some acceleration.
- Oversight: No changes. Urban/suburban stormwater, wastewater and trading/offsets program remain in Ongoing Oversight while agriculture remains in Enhanced Oversight.
- Issues: The EPA expressed concern that stormwater programs may not be adequate to handle increased growth, and warned that the sector could be moved to Enhanced Oversight.
The full evaluations can be found on the EPA’s Bay TMDL website
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