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Virginia exceeding bay cleanup milestones

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia is far exceeding milestones to reduce wastewater pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, clearly showing the restoration of the bay can be achieved, according to the McDonnell administration.

Maryland and five other states and the District of Columbia are trying to staunch the flow of fertilizers, sediment and other pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay.

Gov. Bob McDonnell said the state achieved significant reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus in wastewater ahead of two-year milestones intended to measure the progress of the cleanup overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency. Those elements are among the pollutants that have fouled the bay after decades of neglect by the states.

The bay’s restoration is one of the largest water pollution control projects in U.S. history — an effort by Maryland and five other states and the District of Columbia to staunch the flow of fertilizers, sediment and other pollutants into the bay from its 64,000-square-mile estuary. The federal government took on the task after the states failed for decades to reduce the bay’s pollution, causing the creation of vast so-called dead zones. No life exists in those oxygen-depleted zones, and scientists have logged precipitous declines in shellfish such as blue crabs and oysters.

“Our progress to date clearly shows that a restored bay is possible,” Secretary of Natural Resources Doug Domenech said in a news release Friday.

McDonnell pointed to several accomplishments in topping wastewater expectations. They include:

-Major wastewater plants in 2011 exceeded pollution reduction goals by more than 2,000 percent for nitrogen and more than 450 percent for phosphorus. Both can lead to algae blooms that suck oxygen from the bay.

-Last year, more than 2.5 million pounds of nitrogen were prevented from entering streams and lakes that ultimately end up in the bay. Phosphorus loads were reduced by 216,000 pounds.

-The state has allocated $92 million toward water quality programs.

“This is great news for all those who enjoy the bay, from weekend boaters to commercial fishermen, and it demonstrates our work to reduce nutrient pollution in Virginia’s waters is paying off,” McDonnell said in a news release.

Virginia has also adopted legislation that will ban the use of phosphorus in fertilizers and is working with the state’s 47 soil and water conservation districts to promote nutrient management and best management practices of agricultural lands.

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation has worked with farmers to limit pollution into the bay, such as fencing off streams from livestock that can foul the waters and repairing or replacing faulty septic systems.

While farmers have often been cast as skeptics of the bay plan, the partnership resulted in nutrient management plans for 340,806 acres in 2011.

The EPA’s “pollution diet” for the bay is measured by two-year milestones to ensure accountability and to assess progress.

Despite the progress reported by Virginia, the Chesapeake Bay’s health in 2011 earned it the second-worst grade on a yearly report card issued in April by the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science.

The center gave the bay a D+ in 2011, scoring only slightly better than in 2003, the worst year for bay health since the assessments began in 1986. Heavy spring and fall rains washed pollutants and sediments into the bay, and a hot, dry summer spurred algae blooms that lower oxygen levels.

Virginia’s announcement was made ahead of the annual meeting of the Chesapeake Executive Council on Monday in Northern Virginia.