Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy acknowledged this week that Pennsylvania had not done enough to control pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay, and said that her agency needed to coordinate with agriculture officials to change the course.
Pennsylvania’s lack of progress is “discouraging at the very least,” McCarthy told hundreds of environmental activists, government officials and foundation leaders attending the Choose Clean Water Coalition conference in Annapolis. “I need to talk to the USDA as well,” she added, to applause, “because there is work that needs to be done.”
EPA officials and the states involved in the Bay cleanup have known for years that Pennsylvania lagged behind. But a report released last June showed the Keystone State would need to double the number of farm acres under nutrient management and plant seven times as many acres of forest and grass buffers as it did in 2014 to meet its interim reduction targets under EPA’s Total Maximum Daily Load pollution diet.
Pennsylvania contributes a large share of the pollution loads to the Chesapeake Bay, and agriculture is the bulk of that. The state has 35,000 farms in the Potomac and Susquehanna watersheds, according to Richard Batiuk, associate director of science, analysis and implementation for the Chesapeake Bay Program. Many of these farms are small dairy farms, exempt from the Clean Water Act regulations of animal farms because they are too small to meet the thresholds. Some are also Amish and Old Order Mennonite operations, and those farmers are hesitant to take government funds to modernize their operations to control pollution.
Pennsylvania officials unveiled earlier this year a plan to “reboot” the state’s lagging Bay cleanup effort by vastly increasing farm inspections and finding new sources of funding.
But the state’s environmental leadership got a jolt last week, when John Quigley, secretary of environmental protection, resigned following disclosure of a profanity-laced email from him urging environmental groups to pressure legislators opposing administration initiatives. Quigley’s deputy, Patrick McDonnell, has been named acting secretary.
The EPA administrator addressed Pennsylvania’s cleanup performance at the Choose Clean Water conference only because staff of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation submitted a question about it. Conference organizers said the administrator had time for just two questions following her remarks; the other was about environmental justice.
Environmental groups and the Chesapeake Bay Commission recently complained to Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, that under the latest Farm bill, farmers in Bay states are getting far less financial help from USDA to install conservation practices than they’d been led to believe would be spent in the region.
McCarthy’s comments about the USDA were “what we needed to hear,” said CBF Maryland Director Alison Prost. All the good intentions, Prost added, won’t help Pennsylvania do its part if the state doesn’t receive enough money to put the right programs in place. McCarthy said EPA resources are “fairly minimal,” and Prost said that’s especially true given USDA’s vast resources. In recent years the USDA’s annual budget has been well over $100 billion. The EPA’s budget is generally about one tenth of that, and the agency has limited authority over farms — even when their operators discharge into local waterways. “EPA’s budget is a fraction of what’s needed to do the job in Pennsylvania,” Prost said. “We needed her to say what she said.”
And in six months, at the next meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Executive Council, on which McCarthy sits, Prost said her group plans to ask how that conversation went with USDA.
Nicholas DiPasquale, director of the Chesapeake Bay Program office, echoed his boss in his own remarks to the coalition audience. “I’m going to say this as clearly as I can. If Pennsylvania does not succeed, we’re not going to succeed. It’s as simple as that,” he said.
Batiuk said Pennsylvania’s challenge is “an order of magnitude” more than the other states, but that there is “no reason they can’t get there, and we have to help them.”
McCarthy also spoke about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., blaming it on systematic neglect and disinvestment. It is happening not just in Flint, she said, but in low-income communities all across the nation. Investments in transportation and housing, she argued, are also investments in the environment, and the nation needs to make more of those.
By Rona Kobell
Bay Journal reporter Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun.