While the Bay region may miss its overall goal to clean the Chesapeake by 2010, recent figures from the EPA suggest that one key sector will come close to meeting its objective: wastewater treatment plants.

The figures, based on information from the states, indicate that large wastewater treatment plants and industrial dischargers will achieve 95 percent of their nitrogen reduction goals-and surpass their phosphorus goals-by 2010.

But the progress comes at a price. The EPA estimated that upgrading 483 plants in the watershed with nutrient reduction technology will ultimately cost about $4 billion.

That has triggered intense criticism in some places. Many ratepayers in the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania-neither of which have state programs to help foot the cost-are facing big hikes in their sewage bills.

Nonetheless, the figures-included in an EPA Office of Inspector General Report released in January-are a bright spot for the region's efforts to curb the flow of nutrients into the Chesapeake, where they foul water quality and make survival difficult for fish, crabs and other aquatic life.

In December, Bay cleanup leaders acknowledged publicly that they will fall short of their 2010 goal, and offered no timetable when nutrient reductions would be achieved.

Nutrient reduction efforts from agriculture have largely stalled because of the lack of funding and technical support for farmers. And nutrients from developed land have increased as more subdivisions and shopping centers sprawl across the countryside.

In contrast, the improvements at wastewater treatment plants have been relatively rapid.

In December 2004, the EPA and all six states in the region announced an agreement to require phosphorus and-for the first time-nitrogen discharge limits for large and small plants throughout the watershed.

Plants get their discharge permits renewed every five years, and for the most part, limits are being incorporated as permits come up for renewal. In some cases, states have reopened permits prior to their expiration to speed the process. In all, 483 targeted plants will get permits with nutrient limits.

"It's not all in place now," said Rich Batiuk, associate director for science with the EPA's Bay Program Office. "But what we are hearing from all six state partners right now is they will have all the permit limits in place by 2010."

Donald Welsh, administrator of EPA Region III, which includes most of the Bay watershed, said in a letter to the Inspector General that the Bay watershed is "well on our way" to achieving the largest nutrient reduction from wastewater plants of any region in the nation.

"EPA is proud of the enormous progress that has been made and is under way in the upgrade of wastewater treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay watershed for nutrient pollution," Welsh said.

But the Inspector General report emphasized that states and the EPA needed to keep pressure on wastewater treatment plants if the goal is to be reached and maintained.

About 160 plants-mostly larger facilities-are expected to to have nutrient reduction upgrades in operation in 2010, according to the EPA's figures. That's enough to come close to meeting the nitrogen goal because they include many of the larger plants in the watershed. But a steady stream of upgrades at remaining-mostly smaller-facilities will need to be completed to meet the overall nitrogen wastewater treatment goal and then maintain it as growth continues in the watershed.

Also outstanding in 2010 will be upgrades at the three largest plants in the watershed. Maryland officials expect their two largest treatment plants, Patapsco and Back River, to complete upgrades in 2012. The District of Columbia's Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant, the largest facility in the Bay watershed, is scheduled to complete an upgrade by 2014.

The Inspector General, an independent EPA office that reviews agency performance, said the EPA needed to ensure those upgrades happen on schedule by making sure all discharge permits have compliance schedules with specific construction milestones and completion dates for upgrades.

The report also cautioned that the 2010 figures from the states were "aggressive" and left "little room for error."

The timetable could take a hit in Pennsylvania, where many municipalities say the upgrades mean they will have to pass large rate hikes on to residents.

While the state Department of Environmental Protection has estimated the cost of upgrading the 183 "significant" nutrient dischargers in the state at about $190 million, plant operators say the cost for nutrient upgrades will be closer to $1 billion.

John Brosious, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association, said the $1 billion figure, derived from engineers planning upgrades, was in line with costs expected in Virginia and Maryland.

"We are particularly concerned about the cost impacts to citizens in our larger, older cities and in many of our smaller towns who will see these costs passed on to them without any state or federal funding to help offset them," Brosious said.

Unlike Maryland and Virginia, which have made hundreds of millions of dollars available to help with nutrient-related upgrades in the Bay watershed, Pennsylvania has made just $28 million in grants available, according to the Inspector General Report.

Brosious said his group is backing a proposal that would provide $300 million in funds over 10 years to support the upgrades. It also calls for providing an additional $5 million a year to fund the implementation of cost-effective agricultural nutrient controls in the state's portion of the watershed.

Others may go further. The Capital Region Council of Governments is actively recruiting Harrisburg area municipalities to join a lawsuit against the state DEP over its upgrade strategy.

The Inspector General report said that "obtaining sufficient and timely funding to install nutrient removal technology poses the greatest challenge faced by municipalities in achieving nutrient reduction goals."

Although other sectors-such as agriculture and development-are lagging in their nutrient reduction efforts, the report said wastewater treatment plants should not be asked to do more to make up for the shortfall.

Treatment plants provide only about one-fifth of the nitrogen and phosphorus reaching the Bay, so action by other sectors is essential to reach Bay goals, the report said.

And although it's technologically feasible for the states to achieve greater nutrient reductions from wastewater facilities, it would disproportionately increase overall costs, the report said.

It said the Bay cleanup plans had been designed to be "fair and equitable" with all sources of nutrients making some contributions. "If the wastewater treatment community perceives that nonpoint source sectors have not followed through in the partnership of 'shared sacrifice,' they may challenge any requirements for additional reductions," the report said.

Also, increased costs could have the effect of pushing more developments into areas served by septic systems rather than sewers, which would increase overall nutrient pollution, the report said.

By the Numbers

Wastewater Plants

Overall, the Bay cleanup goals limit the amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay from point sources such as wastewater treatment plants to 43.6 million pounds of nitrogen per year, and 3.3 million pounds of phosphorus.

According to the Bay Program, nitrogen from point sources decreased from 88 million pounds in 1985 to 54 million pounds in 2005, while the amount of phosphorus decreased from 9 million pounds to 4 million.

By 2010, the Bay Program projects nitrogen discharges will be about 46 million pounds a year, and phosphorus about 3 million pounds.

Total Bay

To meet overall Bay cleanup goals, the region needs to reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the Chesapeake to 175 million pounds a year, and phosphorus to 12.8 million pounds.

In 1985, 337.5 million pounds of nitrogen and 27.1 million pounds of phosphorus entered the Chesapeake, according to the Bay Program.

In 2005, actions were in place to reduce nitrogen to 266 million pounds and phosphorus to 18.5 million pounds under "average" rainfall conditions, according to the Bay Program.

Office of Inspector General Reports On The Bay

The EPA Office of Inspector General has completed six reports, requested by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, examining various aspects of the Bay Program. The only remaining report from the Inspector General will be an overview of the EPA's Bay cleanup efforts.

Reports completed to date have covered:

  • Federal Facilities in the Chesapeake Bay: The September 2007 report concluded that the EPA and states were doing a good job managing discharge permits at federal facilities in the watershed. Federal facilities within the watershed have a lower rate of significant noncompliance than other federal and nonfederal major permit holders nationwide. In addition, a strategy is being implemented to eliminate federal facility noncompliance.
  • Development and Growth: The September 2007 report found that nutrient pollution from developed lands is increasing faster than efforts are proceeding to curb runoff from development. The report called on the Bay Program to develop a plan demonstrating leadership in reversing that trend, including the promotion of environmentally sensitive design principles and using stormwater permits to achieve greater nutrient reductions.
  • Grants Supporting Restoration: The September 2006 report found that grants awarded by the Bay Program were successful in contributing to the overall objectives of the Bay restoration program.
  • Coordination of Environmental and Agricultural Resources: This November 2006 report, done jointly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General, concluded that poor coordination between the EPA and USDA contributed to the low level of farmers adopting many practices aimed at controlling runoff from agricultural land. It called for the two agencies to work together on a plan to meet mutually shared goals in the Bay region, and for the USDA to assign a senior level official to coordinate with the EPA Bay Program Office.
  • Clean Air Act: This February 2007 report concluded that the Bay will likely achieve anticipated nitrogen reductions from various Clean Air Act programs by 2010 and thereafter. The EPA had anticipated an 8 million pound reduction in nitrogen reaching the Bay from its watershed by 2010 as a result of air pollution controls.
  • All of the reports are available online at www.epa.gov/oig/.