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EPA urges $491M in bay restoration funds

The first of what federal officials say will be annual action plans for implementing a Chesapeake Bay restoration strategy was released Thursday, calling for $491 million in funding and projects ranging from cutting farm and suburban runoff to rebuilding oyster reefs.

The Environmental Protection Agency announced the plan in response to an executive order last year by President Barack Obama, putting the federal government at the helm of a previously state-led effort.

Chuck Fox, the EPA’s senior Chesapeake Bay adviser, said the funding by various agencies compares to about $290 million for fiscal years 2007 through 2009. However, the plan is subject to approval by Congress.

The plan includes $72 million in financial and technical assistance to help farmers with voluntary conservation practices in key areas; $20 million to the states and the District of Columbia for runoff control; $30 million for land protection; projects to restore fish migration along 67 miles of streams; and bay bottom mapping to help identify the best areas for oyster restoration.

Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which has sued the EPA over the slow pace of restoration efforts, said that of the $491 million, $153 million in USDA programs has already been authorized. Of the rest, Siglin estimated the increase over current programs to total tens of millions of dollars.

EPA officials said the plan should help states finalize their own plans for complying with Obama’s order.

Last week, the agency announced that plans filed by Washington and Maryland constituted a strong start, but said five other bay watershed states — Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and New York — must strengthen theirs or face tighter federal regulation.

State officials, meanwhile, have expressed concerns about the restoration strategy.

The six states are all or partly in the bay’s watershed and pollution from many of their rivers and streams ultimately reaches the bay, promoting oxygen-robbing algae blooms and harmful sediment. Decades of pollution and habitat loss have taken their toll on commercially important oyster and crab populations, other marine life and bay grasses.

Virginia filed its plan two days late and in a Sept. 3 letter to the EPA, the state’s secretary of natural resources expressed concerns about the costs, science and timing of the effort. Pennsylvania’s environmental secretary has said his state supports restoration efforts but expressed concerns about revisiting permitting for sewage plants along the Susquehanna, a major bay tributary.

Fox said the federal funding proposals announced Thursday should help states meet their goals as part of the restoration strategy. “It is our sincere hope this does help the states fill some of the holes,” Fox said.

In addition to the annual action plan released Thursday, the presidential order requires federal agencies to publish an annual progress report assessing the implementation of the action plan and recommending steps to improve the restoration process.

Federal officials urged Congress to approve the funding proposed Thursday.

“The health of the bay is really relying on Congress,” said Sally Yozell, director of policy at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a teleconference to announce the plan. “It’s contingent upon Congress passing this very robust budget for all of us to be successful.”

The federal strategy, among other steps, calls for tightening of permits for wastewater treatment plants, storm water systems and other pollution sources.

The new permit for Washington’s Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant, for example, calls for cutting nitrogen emissions nearly in half, and to help meet that goal the plant plans to break ground in a few months on a $950 million enhanced nitrogen removal facility.

Siglin said the effort is going to be expensive for all involved and will require continued federal funding.

“What’s really going to be important is for the federal government in fiscal year 2012 and beyond to assist state and local governments and perhaps in some cases individuals” to meet restoration goals, Siglin said. “Everybody has to be a partner in making that succeed.”

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