Finding evidence of nutrient impacts on the Bay is easy: Take a boat out during the spring and look for algae blooms. Huge blooms, caused by excessive amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen, reduce water quality and degrade habitats.

Finding impacts from toxic substances, by contrast, is a different story. A trip out in the Bay may find measurable concentrations of metals or organic contaminants, but no indication of their impacts. And just measuring those contaminants in a water sample could cost up to $1,400.

“If your analytical capabilities are good enough, you will find toxics everywhere,” noted Pete Tinsley, deputy director of the Maryland Department of the Environment’s Chesapeake Bay and Watershed Management Administration. “Even at the South Pole, they’ve found certain toxics and things like that.”

That underscores a central problem in dealing with toxics and the Bay: To what degree are toxics a problem? A soon-to-be-published re-evaluation of the Bay Program’s 1988 Basinwide Toxics Reduction Strategy concludes that while toxics may be found in almost any sediment sample taken from the Bay, these metals and organic contaminants do not pose equal threats everywhere.

As a result, an updated toxics strategy that should be completed later this year is expected to emphasize tackling toxics geographically.

This approach of identifying “regions of concern” was endorsed by the Chesapeake Executive Council at their September 1993 meeting. At that time, the council designated Baltimore Harbor, the Elizabeth River, and the Anacostia River as the initial regions of concern, and said the revised toxics strategy should have a process to identify additional areas.

Once designated, regions of concern are intended to become focal points for multi-agency cooperative efforts aimed at increased reductions, pollution prevention, and remediation actions to “restore and protect” those areas.

The original toxics strategy established the daunting goal of a “toxics-free Bay.” Officials see a geographic approach as a reasonable way to better focus their efforts on the worst locations as well as areas with the greatest potential for future impacts from toxics.

“Anything we can do to target the limited — and diminishing — resources that we have on the toxics issue is a good thing,” said John Kennedy of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

And while toxics may be found Baywide, they have their greatest impact near their discharge point. Efforts that address those areas will help reduce any downstream concerns as well, said Jacqueline Savitz, of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “If you can deal with toxics at the point where they’re coming in, that’s the main step in addressing your problem,” she said.

The exact criteria for designating regions of concern are still being developed. But they will include a variety of toxics indicators — the level of contaminants in the water, the amounts in the sediment, levels of toxics in fish flesh or accumulated in shellfish, the presence of tumors in fish, or a dramatically reduced benthic (bottom-dwellers) communities — that will help clearly identify those areas that should get the most attention.

Areas with definite impacts — where contaminant levels exceed those set by the EPA and are clearly impacting fish and other resources — will be designated as areas of “actual concern.”

The areas established by the Executive Council, for example, fit that category because they have clear impacts. Fish in the Elizabeth River have cataracts and lesions. Benthic communities are depleted in both Baltimore Harbor and the Elizabeth River. All three systems have concentrations of metals and organic compounds in the sediments above thresholds generally associated with biological effects. There are some restrictions on shellfish and/or finfish consumption in these systems.

Areas where impacts are less clear but water quality and other criteria approach levels that could be associated with problems may be designated as areas of “potential concern.”

Other areas where there isn’t enough information would be identified as such, while still other locations may be labeled as having no cause for concern.

Some ultimately envision a map of the Bay with bright red spots indicating regions of concern, pink indicating areas of potential concern, and other colors indicating areas with no problems or where data are inconclusive.

The criteria avoid dealing with toxics strictly on a chemical-by-chemical basis. They incorporate indicators such as fish tumors and the health of benthic communities. In areas where all chemical contaminants are within specified water quality standards, such indicators can help identify problems that may be caused by exposure to low levels of toxicants over time or by the mixing of several substances.

“I thought this was one of the most important things to look at,” Savitz said, noting that tumors could develop as the result of exposure to low levels of substances over time. “Finfish tumors are a good indicator of trends.”

Other parts of the revised toxics strategy will deal with trying to reduce potential toxics problems throughout the watershed by promoting pollution prevention and perhaps setting some kind of overall toxics reduction goal.

But in the Bay itself, the most visible action will take place in the regions of concern.

After regions are determined, individual states or the District of Columbia would be directed to develop a “regional action plan.” In these plans, jurisdictions would likely determine the sources and amounts of pollution to the designated waterway, how those sources could best be controlled, identify important habitats, describe the land uses that may contribute to the problems, and other information. The plans would have to set specific goals and timetables for meeting them.

Also, the plans would be required to have some mechanism for public involvement. Such increased involvement, Savitz said, will also increase accountability for restoration efforts in the targeted areas. “If they designate three areas as regions of concern and they don’t beef up activities, the public will be able to see what is — or isn’t — happening,” she said.

Development of regional action plans will also require a more holistic look at what is causing problems in an area. Control programs have traditionally been focused on regulating end-of-pipe discharges from industries, waste water treatment plants, and other point sources. Plan development will require a look at contributions from nonpoint sources, such as runoff from urban streets or contributions from pesticides applied to upstream farms.

“We see the regions of concern effort being not just strictly focused on industrial point sources,” said Rich Batiuk, toxics coordinator with EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office “In fact, that might be one of the lesser points of emphasis. A significant amount of reductions have come out of the industrial sources and — for areas like the Anacostia, you’ve got very, very few industrial sources. That’s a reason for designating these areas: There is a reason for stepping up and beyond what the state and federal efforts are doing anyway. In other words, if we didn’t step in with this effort, things would go on an even keel.”

Still, the issues involved are tough. Many of the problems in both the Elizabeth River and Baltimore Harbor, for example, involve high concentrations of contaminants in the sediments which built up years — or even decades — ago.

“It is important to get some of the current inputs controlled, the point sources and the nonpoint source runoff, but one of the complicating factors is the sediment burden of toxicants that are down there already,” Kennedy said.

In some places, dredging to keep the shipping channels open returns those contaminants to the water column. A remediation program that removes all the contaminated sediments could be expensive, Kennedy cautioned, and finding a place to dispose of the material may be difficult.

Tinsley agreed. “If you’ve got to go in and remediate, what’s that going to cost?” he asked. “And in doing so, is that going to cause more of a problem if you start moving and resuspending the sediments as you try to remove them?”

Both Tinsley and Kennedy noted that even within the regions of concern there are hot spots that are “hotter” than others. In some cases, not touching those areas and allowing them to be buried by incoming sediment may be the best solution. “The action plan process might conclude that the best action is no action,” Tinsley said.

Both he and Kennedy said it was important that the plans take into account economic realities. “We have our hands full just doing what we’re mandated to do by state and federal law and our own regulations,” Kennedy said. “In times of economic hardship, we would be hard pressed to do much more.”

Batiuk said the Bay Program may be able to provide some money to help prepare the plans, conduct monitoring, and other work that may be required.

But by using the regions of concern approach, he said, the Bay Program — particularly the states — will be assured that their money is going to address the most important toxics problems in the Bay. “You’ve got a limited number of resources,” he said, “and you need to be able to target any actions that would go above and beyond the normal regulatory process.”

About the New Toxics Strategy

At its September 1993 meeting, the Chesapeake Executive Council called for the development of a revised Basinwide Toxics Reduction Strategy to be completed by the time the council meets this fall.

The council directed that the new strategy emphasize four areas:

  • Promoting pollution prevention activities throughout the watershed;
  • Implementing the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act and actions beyond those laws which are needed to achieve goals of the cleanup effort;
  • Focusing efforts on geographic areas with known toxics problems or that have the potential to impact living resources and habitat; and
  • Developing toxics assessments that will support management decisions, including an assessment of the potential of widespread low-level concentrations to affect living resources.

The revised strategy will likely have broad policy objectives, such as restating a commitment to a toxics-free Bay, but will also set out a series of clearly stated — and attainable — goals that can be implemented, said Rich Batiuk, toxics coordinator with EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program Office.

Goals could include such things as a broad, basinwide toxics reduction objective to be achieved by a certain date, as well as more detailed goals such as setting acreage targets for implementing integrated pest management on agricultural lands, Batiuk said.

In late winter or spring, a series of “stakeholders” meetings will be held to get input from the public and the regulated community on the revised strategy.

In addition, a series of educational materials will be produced during the year.