Perhaps it was fitting that on a morning when he felt an illness coming on, and a marching band was creating an unrelenting din outside the window, Pat McDonnell sat down to explain Pennsylvania’s Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan.
After all, nothing about the state’s Bay involvement has been easy. The state doesn’t touch the Chesapeake, but is its largest polluter. Half of its landmass drains into the Bay, but less than a third of the state’s population lives there.
Nonetheless, when asked how much of his time the Chesapeake consumes, McDonnell, the state’s environment secretary, replied: “A lot.”
“I came into this job as an air and energy guy and have primarily been a water quality guy for the last three years in terms of the work,” he said.
The state has fallen so far behind in its Bay cleanup obligations that it has threatened the success of the regional effort and spurred the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ramp up its oversight in recent years.
It’s unclear whether the state’s latest cleanup plan will help the situation. Released Aug. 23, it fails to meet the state’s pollution reduction goal for nitrogen by more than 9 million pounds a year.
The plan also outlines a $324 million-a-year shortfall in the funds needed to meet its goals.
The EPA established goals for reducing nutrient pollution in each jurisdiction in the Bay watershed in 2010, when it issued the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, often called the Bay’s “pollution diet.” The TMDL targets the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus, which are responsible for algae blooms that cloud the Bay’s water and fuel its oxygen-starved “dead zone.” Nitrogen has proven the most problematic to control.
The TMDL allows for more federal oversight than earlier cleanup plans that first aimed at cleaning the Bay by 2000 and then by 2010. Both fell well short of their goals.
If the EPA concludes that Pennsylvania’s new plan does not provide reasonable assurance that it will reach its goal, the agency can take a variety of additional actions. Among the options are increasing oversight, extending regulatory authority over more entities, and requiring more pollution reductions from dischargers with permits, such as wastewater treatment plants.
Under the TMDL, the state needs to reduce the amount of nitrogen it sends to the Bay from 112.71 million pounds a year in 2009 to 73.18 million pounds in 2025.
Through 2018, Pennsylvania had taken only enough actions to reduce nitrogen runoff to 107.36 million pound a year, according to computer model estimates from the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program. Most of that enters the Bay through the Susquehanna River and a smaller portion from the Potomac.
Because of its poor performance, the state’s remaining reduction is more than is required from the rest of the watershed combined from now through 2025.
In an interview, McDonnell acknowledged the state’s shortfall in meeting Bay commitments, but he disputed that its plan was incomplete.
“I disagree with the characterization,” McDonnell said. The state, he insisted, is not getting credit for some actions that are helping to reduce pollution, such as reclaiming abandoned mine lands, fixing streams tainted by acid mine drainage or constructing wetlands for mitigation projects. “The projects that we have done have been undercounted,” McDonnell said.
Further, he said farmers and others have implemented far more runoff control practices than the state is getting credit for. Other states also contend in their plans that they are not getting enough credit for cleanup actions already taken.
McDonnell said, and others agree, that Pennsylvania’s new plan has put a huge effort into working with local governments to develop county-based plans to garner local support for initial implementation. Many criticized the cleanup plan Pennsylvania created after the TMDL was first issued in 2010 as a top-down document drafted by officials out of touch with on-the-ground realities.
It contributed to the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau helping to initiate an ultimately unsuccessful suit challenging the TMDL.
Now, the Farm Bureau has been an active participant in developing the latest plan, along with conservation districts, local governments and others.
“We are going to have to engage in this parcel-by-parcel and site-by-site, which is why the county action plans and the local engagement are so important,” McDonnell said. “It is bringing exactly the people we need into the discussion, into the room, to help both drive the message and drive the action.”
It’s a major challenge. Less than a tenth of Pennsylvania’s nitrogen comes from wastewater treatment plants — which have been the go-to source for pollution reductions in Virginia and Maryland — and most of Pennsylvania’s plants have now been upgraded.
That means Pennsylvania must engage thousands of farmers and hundreds of local governments to secure future nutrient reductions. Pennsylvania has 33,000 farms, more than any other state, as well as more runoff from developed land, much of it coming from small communities not covered by stormwater permits.
But the first four county plans to be completed, covering Lancaster, York, Adams and Franklin counties, failed to meet their nutrient reduction goals. Still, if they implement actions outlined in their plans, it would reduce the amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay by almost 10 million pounds — nearly twice what the state as a whole has accomplished since the TMDL went into effect.
Pennsylvania’s plan has been more specific about financial needs than plans of other states. About $197 million a year in state and federal money has gone toward Bay-related efforts, but the plan says another $324 million a year is needed.
McDonnell said the funding gap includes not only state money, but also federal and local funds, as well as investments from farmers who share the cost in implementing runoff control practices. But, “we do need funding,” he added.
Getting money from the Republican-dominated legislature, which has often been at odds with the Democratic governor, has been a challenge and funding for environmental programs has been declining over the years. Even legislation that has passed in both Maryland and Virginia to regulate lawn fertilizer has languished in the Pennsylvania General Assembly for eight years.
But the state has had self-inflicted problems, too, including trouble getting millions of dollars in federal grant money out the door to support cleanup work. On Sept. 10, the EPA sent a letter to McDonnell dictating how unspent money was to be used.
McDonnell said the state is trying to do a better job of targeting where money is spent, putting initial emphasis on the first four counties that developed pilot plans.
“With Lancaster County, it’s no secret it is almost a quarter of the lift,” he said. “We are very focused on providing resources in these kinds of areas to not only improve the water quality in those counties, but to meet our Bay obligations.”
Indeed, McDonnell contends that if the state can start getting more conservation practices on the ground, and people see improved local stream health, it will spur more action.
“We are having positive impacts in terms of programs we are having,” he said. “There is a need to accelerate that for sure, and that is what the plan gives us.”