The Environmental Protection Agency announced Monday that it has rejected Pennsylvania’s latest plan to reduce pollution in the Chesapeake Bay because it finds it falls far short of the state’s commitments.
The agency forced Pennsylvania to resubmit its plan last year, warning that its first attempt was inadequate. But the state’s latest attempt also fell short, the EPA said, failing to account for 9.3 million pounds of nitrogen reductions the state should achieve by a 2025 deadline.
As a result, the federal agency plans to proceed with an increased pace of environmental inspections and penalties that were originally announced in April, said Adam Ortiz, administrator for EPA’s Region 3, which includes the Bay States.
“Part of our stance as a region in the Biden administration is this tough love policy,” Ortiz said.
The “love” includes federal government infrastructure dollars, including America’s bailout plan, Ortiz noted.
Meanwhile, the 2025 cleanup plan for the bay seems unlikely to materialize. Last month, the Executive Board of the Chesapeake Bay program acknowledged this and commissioned a committee to evaluate a new schedule.
According to EPA’s most recent analysis, only West Virginia and Washington, DC are on track to meet their 2025 commitments. The other states are lagging behind, albeit to varying degrees.
But the EPA has focused on Pennsylvania primarily because of the amount of nutrient and sediment pollution it sends into the Chesapeake via the Susquehanna River, said Suzanne Trevena of the Chesapeake Bay Program Water Division. This is partly due to the high concentration of farms in the state.
Runoff from agriculture — such as manure and other fertilizers applied to fields — fills tributaries of the bay with excess nutrients. When they reach the bay, these nutrients spur algal blooms that steal oxygen needed for sea life.
Pennsylvania has already completed upgrades to many wastewater treatment plants, another major source of nutrient pollution, so the remaining reductions will have to come from sources like farms, Trevena said.
“Some states can afford the luxury of receiving further upgrades to wastewater treatment plants. So they have this guaranteed regulated sector that they can rely on,” said Trevena.
After the EPA found Pennsylvania’s plan flawed again, the state could change it again, Trevena said.
In its most recent filing, Pennsylvania pointed to plans to use $154 million from the American Rescue Plan to support a cost-sharing program for farmers to provide financial incentives for best practices like protecting streams and rivers with forested buffers. But that wasn’t enough to close the gap.
In a statement, Deborah Klenotic, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said, “We know through modeled and monitored progress that what we are doing is working, and we are committed to maintaining and increasing our efforts.”
Specifically, the state agency plans to continue working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to improve pollution reduction efforts and looks forward to the impact of the new farmer cost-sharing program, Klenotic said.
“In the past it was about politics and investment to help [farmers] out. A lot of those policies and investments haven’t hit Pennsylvania yet, so that could be part of the problem,” Ortiz said. “The cost-sharing program in particular is a great help. These are programs that Virginia and Maryland have had for more than a decade.”
According to the EPA’s analysis, Pennsylvania has made plans to meet 72% of promised nitrogen reductions, 99% of phosphorus reductions, and 93% of sediment reductions.
Pennsylvania has long been maligned for its slow progress towards cleaning up goals in the Bay. In 2020, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh sued President Donald Trump’s EPA for enforcing the 2025 Accord, specifically for Pennsylvania and New York. This litigation is still pending.
Since announcing that the 2025 Bay cleanup plan is unlikely to be completed, some Bay advocates have urged the EPA to take a more aggressive stance on states that are falling short.
For example, the EPA could withhold certain funding from these states. But Ortiz has said that doing so would be tantamount to “not giving food to the starving person.” The agency could also change which state agency or nonprofit gets its funding, Ortiz said, with the goal of improving program outcomes.
“We can create a little competition between government agencies, so that’s how we want to do it,” Ortiz said. “But actually it’s about making progress, not making statements.”