By: Karl Blankenship,

Pennsylvania’s draft plan to help clean up the Chesapeake Bay falls far short of achieving its 2025 pollution reduction goals, a gap that would jeopardize regional efforts to restore the nation’s largest estuary to healthy conditions.

Pennsylvania’s draft plan for reaching its 2025 Bay cleanup goals only gets two-thirds of the nitrogen reductions needed, but would still require the state to more than double its spending on pollution control efforts. (Karl Blankenship)

The state’s draft watershed implementation plan, submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on April 12, says the state “is committed to having all practices and controls in place by 2025.”

But, while the actions outlined in the plan would meet Pennsylvania’s phosphorus goals, they would make only two-thirds of the 34-million-pound nitrogen reduction needed by 2025.

That shortfall is nearly a quarter of the remaining nitrogen reductions needed from the entire Bay watershed from now through 2025, the deadline for taking all actions needed to restore Bay water quality.

Even with that shortfall, the plan would require Pennsylvania to increase its spending on pollution reduction efforts by $257 million a year — more than double what the state currently spends.

If Pennsylvania fails to fix its nitrogen reduction shortfall by the time final plans are to be completed this summer, it could set up a showdown with the EPA. Because Pennsylvania is so far behind in its Bay commitments, the agency last year singled the state out for increased oversight, and said its new plan needed to demonstrate that it will have the programs, funding and policies needed to implement it, or face potential “consequences.”

Specifically, the EPA said it expected the state to provide “technical details,” including a listing of all nutrient control  actions needed to meet its Bay pollution reduction goals — something the draft did not do, and it provides little detail about how it would cover the shortfall. 

Deborah Klenotic, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, acknowledged the plan only outlined actions that achieved two-thirds of the nitrogen goal, but said the state “will meet its obligations through additional measures.”

“A key focus … is increased tracking of nitrogen reductions from sources not yet documented,” she said.  

The plan said many conservation measures that farmers and others implemented on their own — without public funding — have not been accounted for in meeting Bay goals. It calls for increased efforts to track those actions, as well as other measures for which it says the state has not received full pollution-reduction credit.

Pennsylvania does not touch the Chesapeake Bay directly, but it is by far the largest source of water-fouling nutrients that reach the nation’s largest estuary — primarily through the Susquehanna River, which is the source of half the freshwater entering the Bay. A portion of the state also drains into the Potomac River, another major Bay tributary.

Pennsylvania does not touch the Chesapeake Bay directly, but it is by far the largest source of water-fouling nutrients that reach the nation’s largest estuary — primarily through the Susquehanna River, which is the source of half the freshwater entering the Bay. (Karl Blankenship)

But the state has lagged far behind in its nutrient reduction efforts for nitrogen ever since the EPA enacted its new cleanup initiative, the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or pollution diet, in 2010. The TMDL established limits on the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that flow from the six states that drain into the nation’s largest estuary as well as from the District of Columbia.

In the Bay, the nutrients feed algae blooms, which block sunlight from reaching the underwater grass beds that provide habitat for many species. And when the algae die, they lead to oxygen-starved “dead zones.”

States have been working toward meeting the EPA’s pollution diet  goals since 2010, but Pennsylvania has lagged far behind. Under the TMDL, the Keystone state needed to slash nitrogen discharges to the Bay by 39.5 million pounds by 2025, from 112.7 million pounds a year to 73.2 million.

But through the end of 2017 — the most recent figures publicly available — the state had reduced its nitrogen contributions by just 5.4 million pounds, according to the state-federal Bay Program. That leaves a 34-million-pound shortfall.

Because of its chronically lagging performance, Pennsylvania is responsible for about three-quarters of the remaining nitrogen reductions needed from the entire Bay watershed to meet cleanup goals.

But in proposing to reduce nitrogen by just two-thirds of what’s needed, Pennsylvania’s draft plan would still leave a gap of more than 11 million pounds.

That gap  in the draft plan puts pressure on the EPA to determine how it will respond. Representatives from other jurisdictions — especially Maryland — have called on the agency to apply more pressure on Pennsylvania, saying that the Bay cannot reach its water quality goals without the Keystone state making its share of needed  nutrient reductions.

Last year, the EPA warned that if the state did not submit a satisfactory plan, it could face a variety of consequences. Those could include forcing wastewater treatment plants to make further costly upgrades, bringing more animal feedlots under the federal regulatory umbrella, or redirecting how EPA grant funds are spent.

An agency spokesman declined to comment on Pennsylvania’s plan, saying only that the agency was reviewing drafts from all the states — which are to describe all cleanup actions needed by 2025 — and would release its assessments in early June.

Once the EPA finishes its review of the plans, states will have until August 9 to submit final documents to the agency.

Harry Campbell, Pennsylvania executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, expressed disappointment that Pennsylvania’s plan failed to address the state’s shortfall. “We’ve got to fix it and fund it,” he said.

Campbell praised the state’s effort to involve counties, farmers and other stakeholders in the plan’s development, saying “the process got a lot of interest, energy and even enthusiasm” and that the state would have been further along if such an outreach effort had begun years ago.

But, he added, “the bottom line is it’s got to add up, and obviously, it’s got to be funded.”

Securing funding from the state’s General Assembly has long been a challenge. According to the plan, the state and counties in the watershed currently spend about $229 million a year on efforts that would help meet Bay goals. But that spending needs to be ramped up to $485 million a year — resulting in a $257 million annual shortfall.

The shortfalls identified in the report are not new, though. A Pennsylvania “reboot” strategy released three years ago intending to jump-start the state’s Bay obligations also identified severe staffing shortages and a similar funding shortfall.

Campbell said that the new plan, and the potential for EPA action, could finally spur the state’s lawmakers to provide more resources for the job. “This is sort of a stark reminder, and maybe even a wake-up call, as to the need,” he said. 

Pennsylvania has always faced a more difficult challenge in reducing nutrient pollution than most other states in the watershed.

Maryland and Virginia have made recent progress primarily by upgrading wastewater treatment plants, but only about a tenth of Pennsylvania’s nitrogen comes from that sector.

Most of its nutrients come from agricultural and stormwater runoff — sectors all states have struggled to control — and Pennsylvania has more of each than any other jurisdiction in the Bay watershed.

It has more farms — 33,000 — than any other state, and most are small, making both oversight and outreach a struggle. Likewise, much of the stormwater pollution comes from small rural communities. Three-fourths of Pennsylvania’s developed lands in the Bay watershed are outside areas covered by state and federal stormwater permits, meaning there is little effective regulatory control.

“Compared to the other states in the watershed, the scale of the nonpoint source challenges in Pennsylvania is one of the most significant factors that has impacted past progress and will impact future success,” the state’s draft plan says.

Despite its shortfall, the draft state plan acknowledges the urgency to begin demonstrating cleanup progress or face potential EPA action. It implores local governments and others to “demonstrate progress” even if concrete action is not immediately possible.

For instance, it said, local governments can take necessary administrative steps toward creating stormwater fees even if they cannot be levied immediately. They can also create voluntary programs to reduce lawn fertilizer, subsidize rain barrels and promote reforestation, the plan suggested.

The plan also emphasizes that not only the Bay, but the state’s own rivers, streams and public drinking water supplies are at risk and would benefit from the cleanup actions.

If the state doesn’t ramp up its efforts, some — including Maryland lawmakers — have suggested bringing lawsuits to try to force action. In the draft plan, Pennsylvania tacitly acknowledges that patience among others involved in the Bay restoration effort is wearing thin, and that it “could face opposition from other states and environmental organizations” if it does not do more.

David M. Higgins II is an award-winning journalist passionate about uncovering the truth and telling compelling stories. Born in Baltimore and raised in Southern Maryland, he has lived in several East...