Virginia’s bay plan is headed to the EPA

RICHMOND — A revised Virginia plan to restore the Chesapeake Bay is headed to the federal government by month’s end despite mixed reviews of whether it improves on the first proposal that was universally panned by environmentalists.

A group of more than 30 stakeholders with different views on the plan including conservationists, manufacturers, farmers and municipal officials met for a final time on Tuesday. It will go to the Environmental Protection Agency by Nov. 29, without a final review by the panel.

Director David K. Paylor of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality said he is optimistic the new plan improves on the one submitted in September.

“I suspect there are sufficient changes to satisfy the EPA,” Paylor said in an interview. He cited a bigger commitment in the plan, for instance, to reducing wastewater discharges into the James River.

President Barack Obama has directed the EPA to lead efforts to restore the environmentally crippled bay, which has been fouled by runoff from farm fields, urban sprawl and inadequate water treatment plants in the six states within the bay’s estuary.

Ann F. Jennings, Virginia executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said she is fearful the new plan still won’t go far enough, based on what she heard at the meeting. She pointed to a reluctance to achieve significant wastewater reductions or “extremely vague” and voluntary guidelines regarding agriculture.

Jennings also questioned the decision by state officials to submit the plan to the EPA without a final review from stakeholders, who have met since mid-2009.

“I think input would be constructive,” she said after the meeting. “But it sounds like they’re going to go off behind closed doors and make decisions and leave us to react to what comes out on the 29th.”

Pollution and subsequent habitat loss have created oxygen-starved “dead zones” in the bay, taking a toll on oysters and crabs and stressing other marine life and grasses. Management practices have helped the blue crab population rebound over the past two years.

Gov. Bob McDonnell and Virginia farm interests have been skeptical of the federal government’s ambitious approach to revive the bay. They have questioned its cost amid a recession and the science behind some of the EPA’s proposals.

Virginia officials have been negotiating with the EPA on some of those points, and the talks are continuing, said Anthony Moore, who is leading the Chesapeake Bay restoration in Virginia.

“We have some real tough issues we need resolved,” Moore said in an interview. “I think we’re a lot closer to resolving those issues, but there’s still a couple issues that are going to be hard to settle.”

Still, he added, “We’re hoping EPA will agree with our final plan.”

The EPA is expected to respond to the state’s report by the end of December.