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EPA unveils ‘historical’ plan to restore bay

RICHMOND, Va. — The Environmental Protection Agency outlined a plan Wednesday to restore the Chesapeake Bay, calling the 64,000-square-mile water pollution control project the largest ever undertaken in the United States.

The restoration plan involves individual agreements with six states — including Maryland — and the District of Columbia to sharply reduce the flow of pollutants and sediments that have choked the bay and crippled it environmentally. The states and the district are part of the bay’s watershed, which includes 17 million people.

The goals are to be achieved by 2025.

With the backing of President Barack Obama, the EPA is shepherding the restoration plan because of the lack of progress over the years by the individual states to protect or restore the bay.

As a result, farm and urban runoff, air pollution and sewer overflows have left the 200-mile-long bay with “dead zones” — areas where oxygen is sucked from the water by algae blooms that block sunlight from reaching underwater marine life. Pollution and disease have nearly killed off the bay oyster, while the bay’s blue crab population is only beginning to rebound under tighter harvest management.

An EPA regional administrator who detailed the plan in a conference call described the scope of the restoration as “the largest water pollution strategy plan in the nation” and very likely the world.

“It’s basically every drop of water that’s coming from all the reaches of the watershed that gets to the bay, and making sure that the water quality is being protected and addressed,” the EPA’s Shawn M. Garvin said.

“I would call this historical. I would call this monumental,” he added.

Garvin said he could not provide a “bottom line” cost for the restoration, though the states individually have put the figure in the billions of dollars.

The “pollution diet” outlined by the EPA is formally known as the bay’s total maximum daily load. The diet calls for 20 percent to 25 percent reductions in the primary pollutants flowing into the bay: nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment.

The reduction in sediment alone accounts for an annual reduction of 6.5 billion pounds.

The goals would be achieved by reducing farm and suburban fertilizer runoff; new, improved wastewater plants or tighter permitting of them; improved storm water systems; and controls of large animal feeding operations.

In addition to Maryland, the states are New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, West Virginia and Virginia.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which sued to force the cleanup, called the announcement a “turning point in the restoration of this national treasure.”

“EPA’s actions today reflect a historic change in how government will restore water quality in local rivers, streams and the Chesapeake Bay and protect the hundreds of thousands of jobs that rely on clean water,” foundation president William C. Baker said in a statement.

This week, the organization gave the bay an overall grade of D-plus, up slightly from the grade of D in 2008. Baker said then that the bay was getting better but still out of balance.

The governors of Maryland and Virginia, the states that sandwich the bay, credited their states’ efforts in developing a plan to heal the bay.

“Bay restoration is within reach,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said in a statement. “This plan provides the road map to get us there.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell called Virginia’s plan a “stringent but workable” approach that balances environmental protections and the concerns of farmers. Farm groups have been critical of the bay plan, saying it will cost cattlemen and growers hundreds of millions of dollars to comply.

The EPA has worked with the six states and the district to develop the plans. Some states will have to work on their plans to meet EPA standards, Garvin said.

The states that couldn’t provide “reasonable assurances” to reach the goals, and the specific shortcomings, include: New York, sewage treatment; Pennsylvania, storm water pollution; and West Virginia, tighter agricultural controls.

Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania will also receive “enhanced oversight” of their plans.

“It’s important to remember, this is not an overnight project,” Garvin said. “We have 15 years to implement these pollution controls and we will adapt and change course along the way if necessary.”