Localities wait on federal review of bay cleanup plan

By Sean Tubbs

Charlottesville Tomorrow

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Local governments in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will not know until early 2011 if they will be required to make significant public investments in order to comply with a federal mandate to clean up the bay.

“Everyone is holding their breath,” said Leslie Middleton, executive director of the

Rivanna River Basin Commission

, at a meeting Monday. The RRBC is a quasi-governmental organization created to enhance water quality in the Rivanna River watershed, which is itself part of the bay’s 64,000-square-mile watershed.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing plans submitted by Virginia and other bay states that detail what actions will be taken to reduce the amount of phosphorous, nitrogen and sediment that enters the watershed. The watershed has been split into 92 segments, each of which will be allocated a total maximum daily load (TMDL) of the pollutants.

If the EPA is not satisfied that states will reach the reduction goals, the agency has the power to impose “backstop” measures through its existing authority to regulate wastewater treatment plants, municipal stormwater infrastructure and other “point-sources” of pollution.

Albemarle County and Charlottesville officials have expressed concerns

that these measures could cost millions of dollars each year in capital upgrades to capture, treat and store stormwater.

The EPA does not have the authority to regulate “non-point” sources of pollution such as agricultural waste and stormwater runoff outside of urbanized areas.

“We really won’t know what will be acceptable to the EPA until they publish the final TMDL on December 31,” Middleton said.

The commonwealth’s first draft was deemed by the EPA to have “serious deficiencies” that would not allow Virginia to meet its targets by 2017. In their final draft, state officials responded to EPA concerns by increasing the amount of phosphorous and nitrogen that must be removed at wastewater treatment plants.

“We have now crafted a good, amended plan that addresses the issues raised by EPA and allows us to achieve pollution reductions absent ‘backstops’ from EPA,” wrote Douglas W. Domenech, Virginia’s secretary of natural resources.

However, Domenech’s revised plan also called on the EPA to delay implementation of the plan until May of next year to allow more time for public comment. He claimed it will cost $7 billion over the next 15 years to reach the goals called for by the EPA, and said funding from the General Assembly is far from guaranteed.

“The success of the [plan] may be subject to the provision of sufficient federal funding to assist in covering these massive new unfunded mandates,” Domenech wrote.

Download Virginia’s November 29, 2010 watershed implementation plan

The executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation issued a statement that Virginia’s changes were a step in the right direction, but cautioned the EPA may not find it satisfactory.

“Unfortunately, while the revised plan includes many more promising ideas for reducing polluted runoff from Virginia farms, it continues to lack commitments that such reductions will actually be achieved,” Ann Jennings wrote.

After the TMDL is published by the EPA, the second phase of the clean-up plan will be written by localities with assistance from agencies like the RRBC and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.

“We want to create an environment where point and non-point sources can be looked at holistically and the entire community of rural, suburban and urban stakeholders can do their part,” said Charlottesville City Councilor

David Brown

, who is chairman of the RRBC.

One of the challenges will be in balancing the regulatory burden across all sources of pollution. That debate will play out next year as stakeholders at the local level gather to discuss how to best attain the pollution targets.