The annual meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council on Sept. 5 focused on achievements in the Bay restoration effort, but environmental groups contend the top Bay policy-making panel did little to address Pennsylvania’s huge shortfall in its latest cleanup plan. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (second from left) addresses the crowd at the annual meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council at Oxon Hill Manor in Prince George’s County, MD. To his left are Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and to his right are EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Pennsylvania’s Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, Patrick McDonnell. (Whitney Pipkin)

The Council, which includes governors of the six watershed states, the mayor of the District of Columbia, the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, typically meets annually. This year’s gathering came just two weeks after states completed plans showing how they would meet Bay cleanup goals by 2025.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who was re-elected to serve a third term as the council’s chair, opened the meeting on a conciliatory note, crediting some recent improvements in the Bay’s health to the council’s collective efforts over the years. But he acknowledged that pollution control efforts — which will costs billions of dollars — still had a long ways to go.

Others echoed that theme.

Shawn Garvin, Secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, who represented the state at the meeting, said the excitement over progress is often mixed with the realization of how much further the region’s leaders have to go to achieve Bay goals.

“Some can remember conversations in 2010 in which we talked about 2019,” he said. “We talked about how Phase III [of the cleanup] was going to be the big, uphill challenge to restore the Chesapeake Bay, and it’s going to take all the partners in this room and a whole lot of others to get it done.”

Patrick McDonnell, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, represented Pennsylvania. He lauded the voluntary efforts of farmers and partners in the state to improve water quality so far but said, “there’s an understanding that more needs to be done, and it needs to be done locally. We need to do it project by project and parcel by parcel.”

As the meeting ended, Hogan and others were questioned by the media about Pennsylvania’s plan, which fell far short of showing how the state would meet its goal for reducing water-fouling nutrients in the Bay and revealed an annual funding gap of more than $300 million for its pollution reduction efforts.

Hogan himself had sent a letter to fellow council members Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler one week before the council meeting, calling on Pennsylvania to step up and fund its water quality commitments. Hogan’s letter also pressed the EPA to use its “oversight powers” if the state continues to fall short.

Hogan offered in his August letter to “help Pennsylvania rally the necessary financial and regulatory support” to achieve its goals.

But, when questioned, Hogan said that did not mean Maryland dollars might go toward Pennsylvania’s cleanup.

“We’ve invested $5 billion in cleaning the Bay,” Hogan said of his state, “and we’re not going to be able to handle the sewage problems in Pennsylvania.”

When asked at the meeting whether the EPA would use its federal Clean Water Act authority to try to force Pennsylvania to do more, Wheeler said his agency had not had time to fully review the new plan.

“We just received the [Bay cleanup] plans late last month, and the review will take a couple of months,” Wheeler said. “I’m not going to prejudge the plans, but if we see gaps or holes…we will work with those individual jurisdictions to improve the plans.”

In a statement released after the council meeting, Chesapeake Bay Foundation President Will Baker equated the lack of discussion about those shortcomings to “a 600-pound gorilla in the room that was ignored.”

Baker called on the EPA to use its authority to hold Pennsylvania accountable if its cleanup efforts continue to lag. The Choose Clean Water Coalition, representing more than 200 environmental groups, issued a similar statement looking to the EPA for potential action.

If the EPA doesn’t somehow act to keep states in line with their targets, the Bay Foundation said it would consider taking legal action.

Though not at the meeting, Gov. Wolf defended his state’s plan in a statement issued afterward.

“My administration has committed more resources to local water quality improvements in the Chesapeake Bay watershed than any previous [Pennsylvania] administration,” he said.

The EPA’s recent evaluation of progress toward the 2025 cleanup goals found the region on track for reducing phosphorus and sediment goals but significantly lagging for nitrogen. Most major wastewater treatment plants have been upgraded to decrease their nitrogen contributions, so the bulk of the remaining cuts will need to come from agriculture.

Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, which represents Bay state legislatures, said she’d interpret state leaders’ conversations prior up to the public meeting as more than mere finger-pointing.

Rather, she said, “all of the partners are recognizing how hard it will be to get to our 2025 goals, and all of them realize we’d better be strategic,” she said. “When you get close to a goal and you’re still far away, the pressure’s on.”