At public meetings and in written comments, citizens and organizations from across the watershed - and across the nation - are staking out positions regarding the draft Bay cleanup plan released by the EPA Sept. 24.
Many environmentalists have praised the plan, known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, saying its tougher approach to curbing Bay pollution is long overdue. But the plan is drawing fire from farm organizations, homebuilders and local governments who believe the planned actions will be too burdensome and costly.
Thousands of people turned out for a series of public meetings the EPA conducted throughout the watershed in October. Speakers voiced deep passion on each side of the issue.
At a public meeting in Harrisonburg, VA, more than 800 people, mostly farmers, turned out to show their opposition to the TMDL. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, told the crowd that the TMDL would increase costs for farmers and for local governments, and that greater federal oversight was not needed to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
"It is being done successfully with state oversight without the federal government stepping in," Goodlatte said to loud applause.
Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble disagreed, and said more federal oversight was critical to press the state into action. "I don't think EPA is going to go away," he said. "I personally don't want them to go away, because I want them to hold our state's feet to the fire."
A few days later, in Richmond, it was environmentalists who dominated the crowd, urging the EPA to speed cleanup efforts that have now gone on for 27 years, without producing significant Baywide improvements.
The new plan calls for states to finish the cleanup job, which could cost billions of dollars, by 2025.
Most of the meetings, which were to continue into early November, drew 300 to 400 people, who listened to an hour-long presentation about the draft Chesapeake Bay TMDL, then asked questions or made two-minute comments.
The draft TMDL establishes the maximum amount of nitrogen and phosphorus the Bay can receive and still have healthy water. It also sets nutrient limits for states and major river systems. The EPA is requiring states to write Watershed Implementation Plans showing details of how those limits would be reached and whether their programs are adequate to meet those goals.
The EPA found varying degrees of fault with the first drafts of each state's plans, which were submitted Sept. 1. The agency has said it would impose regulatory backstops - such as requiring stricter controls on wastewater discharges, extensive stormwater retrofits or regulating smaller animal feedlots - to make up for the plans' inadequacies if suitable plans are not submitted by Nov. 29.
One of the problems that the EPA found in many plans was lack of sufficient detail about how states would control runoff from agricultural lands. Although that is the largest single source of nutrient pollution to the Bay, the agency itself has limited authority to regulate farms. Its proposed backstop actions, which would be hugely expensive, are an attempt to leverage greater action to address agriculture by the states.
The TMDL has sparked widespread concern from a host of interests, such as wastewater treatment plant operators, who would face huge expenses if they had to make upgrades beyond those already required, and agricultural organizations, who fear they will be subjected to additional state regulations.
Whether the EPA's push ultimately pays off with a stronger cleanup effort will likely be determined in the courts. Groups are already organizing to file legal challenges.
Concerns about the TMDL have spread across the country, as organizations see it as a precedent for other regions.
The National Association of Home Builders called for the 45-day comment period, which expires Nov. 8, to be extended by 180 days, citing the TMDL's "national implications, extremely high costs and technical complexity."
A coalition of 19 agricultural and forestry organizations from across the nation requested that the TMDL either be withdrawn, or the public comment period extended. They contend that the EPA used flawed computer modeling data in developing the TMDL and had failed to make supporting information available for public review.
Nine New York members of Congress, including both senators, signed a letter expressing "grave concerns" about the TMDL's allocations for New York.
They echoed complaints from New York officials who contend that the EPA used a flawed allocation methodology which assigned a nutrient reduction that was too high and essentially unachievable.
"We would be retrofitting forests with the program put before us," said James Tierney, assistant commissioner for water resources with the New York Department of Conservation. "We think this is an impossible task, not just a difficult task."
Members of Congress from other states including Wyoming, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Indiana, concerned that the EPA may apply concepts in the Bay TMDL to other states, also wrote asking for a comment extension.
But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation wrote EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to vigorously oppose changing the deadline, saying work on the TMDL had begun in 2006 and was "completely transparent and open to public participants."
It noted that the EPA has already slipped from a commitment in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement to clean by Bay by 2010 "to merely having sufficient plans and programs in place with implementation over the following 15 years - a 15-year delay."
Region III Administrator Shawn Garvin said the agency intended to stick with the existing comment period and the end of the year deadline for producing the final TMDL, despite the calls for extensions. "We certainly have heard that," he said. "But I think our position remains the same."
But Garvin said he is open to the idea of giving states more time to write Phase 2 Watershed Implementation Plans. In those plans, states are to take their allocations and set county or other local level targets. Right now, draft plans are due next June 1, but states universally say they don't have enough time to write the more detailed plans.
"We heard you loud and clear in regard to Phase 2 WIPs and are reviewing options," Garvin told state officials at an October meeting, adding that the EPA would make a decision on any timetable revision by the end of the year.