As Congress hears testimony about the handling of the Gulf of Mexico spill, scientists and environmentalists question how prepared the government is to respond if a ship or barge were to leak oil into the Chesapeake Bay.
Experts say a quick-fire response is needed to stop oil from spreading in the shallow bay and reaching the shores.
“There is no functioning [emergency response] system on the Bay in the terms of what we call operational,” said William C. Boicourt, an expert in physical oceanographic processes at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science at Horn Point. He said the center has been working on an early warning system for wind and oil patterns, but such a system is at least two years away.
“We don’t know of any detailed plans and response scenarios that are in place that have been practiced that are ready to go at a moment’s notice,” said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “Clearly the states and the Coast Guard ought to do more planning.”
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael J. DaPonte said there are area contingency plans – collective efforts by federal, state and local agencies and industry representatives — to respond to water-related disasters on the bay.
But primary responsibility for cleaning any oil spill is the party responsible for the spill and the contractors it hires to do that work, DaPonte said.
–by Sharon Behn
The Obama administration yesterday announced its long-promised plan to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay, including tougher curbs on pollution and expanded programs to protect land from development.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson detailed the plan at a news conference along the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. Many of its elements already had been announced in the 12 months since President Obama issued an executive order directing federal agencies to draft plans to clean up what he called a “national treasure.”
This week, everyone seemed eager to share their opinions of the clean-up effort.
“The Obama administration sort of gave a real firm charge to the EPA to come on, get it together, let’s clean up the Chesapeake Bay. But the resources, the muscle is not there,” Mountford said.
Mountford is an avid sailor who retired from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to enjoy the bay before it dies: “I go out on my boat and try to soak up some of what’s left.”
And it’s not just people speaking up.
Choose Clean Water, a meta-coalition, encompassing 40 different activism groups, released a letter about the federal plans. The Baltimore Sun said its chief concerns are “tough consequences” for states if they fail to uphold the federal standards.
The Chesapeake Bay blue crab population is enjoying a revival, with an increase of about 60 percent since last year and its highest rate since 1997. This has been welcome news for the watermen, crab-lovers, environmentalists and politicians.
But at least one expert cautioned that the comeback should not be seen as a sign that the bay’s water quality is being restored; he insists that it is the result of good fisheries management.
“Getting blue crabs numbers up has nothing to do with saving the Bay,” James Price, the head of the Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation, told News21. “It has to do with blue crab management.” Price believes the Bay will never be brought back to its glory days.
Correct management of other crucial fisheries, such as the depleted oyster population, should have been similarly introduced years ago, Price said.
“The Chesapeake Bay Foundation should have argued for moratorium on oysters years ago – but they never have,” stated Price. Now, he believes, it may be too late to save the oysters, as the delicate habitats they depend on for their survival have been destroyed.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in conjunction with the District of Columbia and Maryland, is imposing a new, lower Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) on the Anacostia River, the agency announced Friday.
Facing increasing trash, runoff and pollution levels throughout the Anacostia watershed, the District and the state are working with the EPA to enact the new TMDL.
The Anacostia will be only the second river in the country and the first in the Mid-Atlantic with a trash dumping limit. The Los Angeles River, which runs from the San Fernando Valley to the Pacific Ocean near Long Beach in Southern California, is the other.
A draft copy of the new Anacostia TMDL cites several ways that trash buildup will be reduced, including:
- new storm drain capturing technology
- curtailing of illicit dumping
- regulation of trash removal and prevention
The EPA made this announcement only four days after the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Project released a $1.7 billion plan to clean up the river, its branches and the wetlands surrounding it.
About 60 of the over 700 projects the plan outlined involved trash regulation and collection along the banks of the river and its offshoot waterways, which extend into Montgomery and Prince George’s County.
Less than a week after the Anacostia Watershed Restoration Project announced a $1.7 billion effort to restore and clean up the trash-strewn, polluted river, the Anacostia Watershed Society began the effort with a bang.
In one of many events throughout the National Capital region to mark the 40th Earth Day, the AWS held a large river cleanup at nearly 30 sites throughout the Anacostia watershed, which reaches from the District to Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
Cleanup sites stretched from as far north as Aspen Hill and Colesville to the banks of the Anacostia directly across the river from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
Cleanup organizers told WTOP Radio that Anacostia Park can still be one of the most vibrant and environmentally sound areas of Washington D.C., but trash and pollutants still line the banks of the river.
Watershed Society officials said nearly 60 tons of garbage were removed from the river in the latter half of 2009. They said that the D.C. bag tax has also already helped in cutting down the number of plastic shopping bags they’re finding in the park and along the water.
The Earth Day celebration and cleanup effort was the first major project taken by environmentalists since the AWRP released the multi-part plan to restore the heavily polluted river.
The plan calls for over 700 different projects including:
- retrofitting stormwater runoff facilities
- restoring streams
- creating and restoring natural wetlands
- fish blockage removal
- riparian renewal
- trash reduction
- parkland acquisition
AWRP worked with the governments of the District, Maryland, Virginia, the EPA and Prince George’s and Montgomery to produce the report and action plan.
The University of Maryland’s law clinic wants Perdue Farms Inc. to take charge of its chicken poop.
The environmental law clinic’s decision to represent environmental advocacy groups in a lawsuit against Perdue, a leader of the state’s poultry industry, has spurred intense discussion about academic freedom. But it has also brought up big questions of accountability in the effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
The Clean Water Act citizen lawsuit, in which the clinic is representing Kathy Phillips, the executive director of the Assateague Coastal Trust, and other environmentalists, sparked anger among state legislators.
Though the defendant is Perdue as a whole, the case focuses on a small Eastern Shore farm contracted by the company to grow chickens. The suit says the farmers, Alan and Kristin Hudson, stored manure from the chickens next to a drainage ditch, funneling pollution into the Chesapeake Bay. It placed responsibility for the pollution upon Perdue, but the Hudsons still expressed worry that legal costs from the case could bankrupt their farm.
The lawsuit raises important questions about where responsibility for chicken poop lies, whether with the large company that owns the chickens or the small farmers who grow them. The answer could change the way pollution is regulated in the state.
But some Maryland lawmakers said the clinic is using government funds to attack family farmers and push a narrow agenda, bringing up a different debate about scholastic independence. State senators initially voted to withhold $250,000 from law school’s budget until it turned over information about the clinic’s clients and funding, hoping to “send a message that the law school should not target small farmers when choosing cases,” according to the Baltimore Sun.
“Small family farms on the lower Eastern Shore have survived only because of the poultry industry,” state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus told the New York Times. “If we have this harassment in the courts, they’re going to go away.”
Many saw this as an assault on academic autonomy, and protests rang out across the country, from the St. Louis Post Dispatch to the National Law Journal. So when reconciling House and Senate forms of the state budget on April 6, the Maryland legislature ceded to the pressure and did not cut the law school’s funding. However, it did still request information about the clinic’s clients and finances from the past two years, meaning the debate is far from over.
Meantime, accountability for pollution, an issue that was pushed to the background by the legislative wrangling, also remains unresolved.
As Eric Hartley of the Annapolis Capital wrote in his column, the lawsuit showcases what he sees as one of the chicken industry’s biggest problems: Corporations such as Perdue own chickens, but their manure belongs to the individual farmers. So responsibility for nutrient pollution from chicken feces reaching the bay can fall to farmers, leading to small family farms bearing responsibility in cases such as this one.
Hartley applauded the suit for taking on Perdue and trying to hold the company accountable for pollution from its chickens, tying debate over this case to the larger effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
On April 6, the intense debate that had been raging in Annapolis about whether the state’s new stormwater regulations were too hard on developers came to a controversial end when a Maryland legislative panel approved some relaxed regulations.
The House-Senate Committee on Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review approved the emergency changes to the regulations put forth by the Maryland Department of the Environment’s (MDE), which had stirred heated debate among developers and environmentalists.
Developers and local officials were worried that the new regulations would impede development by imposing high costs on developers. Some environmental groups expressed concern that the weakened restrictions approved on April 6 would put the Chesapeake Bay at greater risk.
The hearing lasted for three hours, and as a result of the vote to approve the relaxed regulations, many construction projects will be held to old building standards. Local news reports covered the hearing and the reactions of individuals on either side of the debate:
- Baltimore Sun, “Easing of storm-water pollution rules approved,” by Tim Wheeler
- The Capital, “Vote ends messy stormwater debate,” by Pamela Wood
- WBAL Report, “Lawmakers Reach Deal on Stormwater Regs,” by Robert Lang and AP
- WTOP presentation of the Frederick News Post story, “Builders, Realtors Hit Hard in Frederick,” by Ed Waters Jr.
Some states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are falling behind in reviewing permits designed to curb stormwater pollution, according to Environmental Protection Agency reports.
Stormwater is the fastest growing source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. It is a serious problem because so much soft ground with plant cover that once absorbed and filtered pollution out of rainwater has been covered by hard surfaces such as roads, roofs and parking lots. These impervious surfaces prevent rainwater from being absorbed into the ground. Instead, it runs into the streams and rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay.
In order to control the environmental impact of stormwater, the Environmental Protection Agency set up a permitting program to regulate stormwater runoff called the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Permits issued under this program control facilities whose discharges go directly into lakes, rivers and streams from identifiable agricultural, domestic or industrial sources. For example, runoff from municipal sewage treatment facilities and construction sites are both regulated by NPDES permits.
Many states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed are behind in updating the permits that control what kind of discharges and how much of them a facility or company can allow to run off a work site and into waterways.
After the state issues a NPDES permit, it is good for five years. At the end of that five-year period, (180 days before its permit expires) a facility must apply to have its permit renewed. When a complete application for renewal is received, but not officially re-issued by a permitting authority, it becomes “administratively continued.” Put simply, the permit becomes backlogged (this can also include facilities waiting for their first NPDES permit).
The EPA measures how effectively states keep up with backlogged permits by tracking their “percent current rates,” which is the number of facilities with current permits divided by the total number of facilities.
Facilities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that release one million gallons of runoff per day, individual major permit holders, and those that do not produce as much runoff, individual minor permit holders, both have 90 percent current goals.
Virginia has the highest percent current rates in the bay watershed. Its rate for major permits is 99.3% and 98.3% for minor permit holders. EPA reports indicate that West Virginia has the lowest percent current rate for minor permit holders, at 56.3%. It show s that Delaware, at 65%, and Maryland, at 69.5%, have the lowest percent current rates for major permit holders in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Overall, none of the percent current rates fall below 50% for states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Most percent current rates for both major and minor permit holders are between 70 and 90%, leaving an estimated 20-30% that are backlogged or “administratively continued.”
Environmentally friendly shoppers face a dilemma when the grocery store clerk asks, “Paper or plastic?” Choose paper, and they’re cutting down trees. Choose plastic, and they’re clogging the landfills.
But Washington, D.C., has found a way to put those disposable bags to use in saving the Anacostia River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
Considering the city’s Department of the Environment found in a study that plastic bags make up 21 percent of trash in Anacostia – and 47 percent in its tributaries – that claim may seem impossible. How could the pesky pollutants ever help the river?
On Jan. 1, the District started charging a 5-cent bag tax on paper and plastic bags at stores that sell food or alcohol. The goal was not only to encourage the use of reusable bags but to protect and provide for the heavily polluted river that flows past Southeast Washington.
As a part of the D.C. Council’s Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act of 2009, the majority of the proceeds go to fund cleanup efforts. For each bag, 1-2 cents goes back to the businesses, while the rest is sent to the Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Fund, according to the Washington Post. The D.C. Department of the Environment will use the fund, which also receives money from other sources such as a new commemorative license plate, to clean the river and its tributaries as well as to provide citizens with reusable bags.
In the month of January alone, the tax already made almost $150,000, the Washington Post reported this week. And it also has resulted in a significant drop in disposable bag use, benefiting the river from two directions.
Washington has found a creative way to turn a negative but largely unchallenged part of life into a positive force for the city, the Anacostia and the Chesapeake. And shoppers still debating “paper or plastic” can breathe a little easier knowing they can still help save the bay.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) and United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Southern Maryland last week to hear from area farmers.
The farmers voiced concerns on a wide range of issues, including environmental regulations, water quality and pricing of crops.
Farmers like Susie Hance-Wells provided input regarding federal regulations and the estate tax, according to Americanfarm.com. “Something has to be done, we are losing farms because of this,” Hance-Wells told Hoyer and Vilsack.
Vilsack assured farmers that the Chesapeake Bay is a crucial concern to the USDA and that it hopes to create updated policies for farming in regards to the bay.
Some farmers wished that Hoyer and Vilsack had allowed more time to listen to the farmers in attendance. Wilson Freeland said in an interview with Americanfarm.com, “There’s lots of stories to be told here. It’s worth his while to look over Maryland agriculture as a whole.” But overall, Freeland was impressed with Vilsack’s comments to the crowd.
“In the U.S. we are blessed because of the American farmer,” Vilsack said.