Pennsylvania is “substantially off track” in meeting its goals to reduce agriculture-based nitrogen and dirt polluting the Chesapeake Bay, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.
The federal agency is warning it may have to step in and levy tougher measures on sewage-treatment plants and large farms in the Susquehanna basin.
The poor performance is being acknowledged by Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection officials under a new administration in Gov. Tom Wolf.
“There is an urgent need for renewed focus on the Chesapeake Bay,” said new DEP Secretary John Quigley.
“Pennsylvania recognizes the volume of work that still needs to be done, and the size of the problem that the Wolf Administration has inherited. However, it is important to recognize the progress Pennsylvania has realized up to this point.
“Since 1985, Pennsylvania has directed more than $4 billion by way of grants, loans and program investments toward Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts. That investment has resulted in a 25 percent phosphorous reduction, 6 percent nitrogen reductions and nearly 15 percent sediment reduction since 1985.
“But it is clearly not enough,” Quigley said.
Among the actions DEP said it would pursue to make better progress was increasing enforcement on farmers who do not comply with state efforts to get them to meet state-mandated nutrient-management plans and conservation plans on farms.
In recent years, EPA has cracked down on several watersheds in Lancaster County, mostly populated by Plain Sect farmers.
“Pennsylvania prefers to work with the farmers to achieve voluntary compliance,” Quigley said, but added, “Farmers need to do the right thing to improve our state’s water quality.”
Pennsylvania, like other bay states such as Virginia, Maryland, New York and West Virginia, have committed to specific reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment by 2017.
In an interim report for 2012-2013, EPA found that Pennsylvania was performing well in meeting its targeted phosphorus reductions, but not for nitrogen and sediment.
Last week, for the 2014-2015 interim evaluation, EPA said Pennsylvania is even further behind.
For example, to get back on track to meet its nitrogen and sediment reduction goals, Pennsylvania would have to find a way to remove an additional 14.6 million pounds, or 22 percent of its loadings into the Susquehanna, by the end of this year.
On another front, Pennsylvania would need to plant more than 22,000 acres of forest and grass buffers along streams to reach its 2014-2015 milestone. Planted so far: just over 3,000 acres, EPA said.
Agriculture was not the only sector pinpointed for lagging behind goals. Pennsylvania had projected it would reduce nitrogen pollution coming from urban and suburban stormwater runoff by 41 percent by 2025. But there has only been a 1 percent reduction to date, EPA reported.
Pennsylvania was applauded for its reductions in phosphorus and for increasing its use of conservation measures on the farm, known as best-management practices.
And, it was pointed out, there have been unanticipated increases in ag production in recent years. The poultry industry, in particular, has expanded greatly since 2007.
Also, EPA acknowledged that Pennsylvania may be correct in its complaint that efforts of many farmers, particularly Plain Sect farmers, for such practices as no-till farming and planting of cover crops, were not counted in computer modeling of Pennsylvania’s efforts to clean up the Bay.
This could improve Pennsylvania’s poor standing, EPA said.
However, for now, the state is in for harsh criticism.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in a news release, expressed exasperation with the state’s efforts to date.
“It is past time for Pennsylvania to take meaningful actions that will accelerate pollution reduction,” said William C. Baker, president of the nonprofit citizens group. “If Pennsylvania does not significantly advance their efforts to reduce pollution, then CBF calls on EPA to specify the actions it intends to take to ensure pollution is reduced.
“Unless there are consequences for failure, we are in danger of repeating the decades of failed Bay restoration efforts of the first three Bay agreements.”
Last month, after another report card on the entire bay cleanup gave low marks to Pennsylvania’s progress, U.S. Sen. Robert Casey and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland sent a strongly worded letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The senators urged that federal money that they say was promised to help farmers be delivered to ag communities, including to the Susquehanna River Basin .
The money is needed for the area to escape harsh enforcement action by federal agencies, Casey said.