Thirteen years after the 1987 Bay Agreement called for controlling toxic discharges to protect aquatic and human health, the Bay Program has mixed results.
Fish consumption advisories exist in 21 parts of the Bay watershed. Three parts of the tidal Bay region are considered toxic hot spots. Bay Program reports suggest that at least another 10 tidal areas are likely to have contamination problems.
At the same time, toxics released from industries have declined sharply in the watershed, farmers are using fewer pesticides and hundreds of businesses are actively practicing “pollution prevention” to stop pollution before it starts.
To keep working toward its goal of a “Bay free of toxics,” the Bay Program has drafted the first update to its toxics strategy in six years.
The strategy, expected to be finalized this fall, calls for targeted reduction efforts in areas with known problems, while seeking voluntary toxic reductions basinwide, including a “zero release” goal for point sources.
It also calls for placing special emphasis on a smaller group of more than 30 “chemicals of concern” which persist in the environment, bioaccumulate in the food chain, or are known — or strongly suspected — of causing problems in parts of the Bay or its tidal tributaries.
The draft was developed after more than a year of meetings with local government officials, business representatives, scientists, environmentalists, farmers and others.
Together, those stakeholders helped to craft the strategy’s dozens of goals and commitments that will drive the mostly voluntary toxics reduction efforts in the watershed for the next decade.
“I’ve been impressed with the painstaking efforts that have been made to include all voices in it,” Kim Coble, a scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said of the draft. “I think that it makes it a pretty strong strategy overall. It touches on a lot of different kinds of issues.”
For “point sources” — discharge pipes and smokestacks that require permits — the emphasis is on voluntary pollution reduction efforts that go beyond permit requirements. In particular, it seeks — through voluntary efforts — to eliminate mixing zones by 2010. Mixing zones are areas beyond the end of a pipe where chemicals are allowed to exceed water quality standards until they are diluted.
It also sets out a number of voluntary reduction goals for toxic releases throughout the watershed, as well as some targeted objectives, such as a 15 percent reduction in “chemicals of concern” released in areas that are impacted or threatened by chemical contamination.
For the first time, a Bay toxics strategy calls for measurable reductions — 10 percent by 2010 — not only from industry, but also from public sewage facilities. Because their releases depend on what others send down the pipe, that goal will mean outreach, especially with those industries that discharge to the plants rather than having their own permits.
“It’s the first time that public wastewater treatment plants have committed to reducing their discharges in a toxics strategy,” said Kelly Eisenman, toxics coordinator for the EPA’s Bay Program office. “They acknowledge that it will be very difficult because there will need to be a big educational effort to work with their industries.”
The strategy calls for reducing pollution from nonpoint sources — such as urban and suburban runoff — to eliminate toxic impacts on living resources and human health through voluntary measures by 2010.
By next year, the Bay Program will work with local governments and others to identify areas with a high potential to have contaminated runoff and, by 2005, to develop demonstration projects of ways to reduce that pollution.
By 2010, the strategy calls for reducing contaminants from runoff to the three hot spots, or “regions of concern,” by 10 percent, through both voluntary and regulatory programs.
It also directs the Bay Program to support research on lingering scientific questions, such as whether large amounts of chemicals flushed into waterways during storms, either from urban areas or agricultural land, pose a threat to fish and other resources. Some have suggested that such large influxes — usually overlooked by monitoring programs — could pose a threat during sensitive life stages of fish.
It calls for making better estimates of the amount of toxics entering the Bay from all sources — including air pollution and groundwater.
It also calls for studies to better quantify human fish consumption rates in some areas so managers can better estimate chemical exposure for those who eat fish from areas with toxics problems, or potential problems.
To anticipate emerging issues, the strategy calls for the Bay Program to review the potential of animal agriculture to have a toxic impact on the Bay and to make any necessary recommendations by next year.
Historically, the Bay Program has focused its attention only on fish and other species living in the Chesapeake. The draft strategy calls for it to also consider impacts on aquatic-dependent wildlife, such as waterfowl.
The strategy also seeks to complete the Bay Program’s effort to geographically “characterize” the toxics risk in various parts of the Chesapeake and its tidal tributaries. Last year, it released a characterization report that identified three “regions of concern,” 10 “areas of emphasis” which are likely to have toxic effects on living resources, eight areas where impacts were considered unlikely — and 20 areas where there was too little information to make a call.
The strategy calls for gathering information to complete that characterization.
Many of the places with the worst chemical contamination in the watershed, especially the regions of concern — the Anacostia River, Baltimore Harbor and Elizabeth River — have large amounts of contaminants built up in the sediment. Even if new pollution were curbed immediately, those “legacy” contaminants would pose problems for years. The strategy calls for new research focused on ways to deal with those problems.
The draft strategy is available for review on the Bay Program’s web site, www.chesapeakebay.net