The Bulletin

Northam ‘discussing’ whether to take legal action against Pennsylvania, EPA over Bay cleanup

By: - January 15, 2020 1:23 pm

Snowy egrets and mallard on eroding marsh near Poplar Island in Talbot County, Md., on May 20, 2010. (Photo by Alicia Pimental/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Gov. Ralph Northam is weighing legal action against Pennsylvania over its Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, which falls short of the state’s commitments to reduce pollutants that make it into the bay.

On Jan. 8, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced he was directing his state’s attorney general to pursue an action against both Pennsylvania and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has broad authority over the decades-long effort.

“It’s clear the Trump EPA must do more to ensure accountability across all watershed states,” said Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky in an email. “Our administration is discussing various next steps with Attorney General Mark Herring’s office, Governor Hogan, and other regional partners.”

In response to the administration’s statement, Chesapeake Bay Foundation Virginia Executive Director Peggy Sanner said her organization “would support any action that helps Pennsylvania achieve its (Clean Water) Blueprint goals.”

“So far, Pennsylvania’s elected officials have not made the investments needed to meet their clean water commitments,” she said. “And EPA’s failure to impose consequences puts the entire cleanup at risk.”

The Chesapeake Bay watershed. (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

The dustup over Pennsylvania follows years of shortfalls by that state in meeting reductions targets for nitrogen and phosphorus, the two nutrients responsible for most of the pollution in the Chesapeake Bay. 

This December, the EPA found that Pennsylvania’s most recent plan to meet 2025 cleanup goals failed to meet the nitrogen reduction target by almost 10 million pounds. 

The state’s ongoing failure to reduce its pollution loads to target levels has sparked concern from other states, particularly because its upstream position influences the health of waters off both Maryland and Virginia.

What other states can do to force adherence to the cleanup plans, however, is unclear, particularly after surprise comments Jan. 3 by EPA Chesapeake Bay Program director Dana Aunkst that Bay Program goals are only aspirational and cannot be legally enforced

The statement, made at a meeting of the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a legislative body that coordinates bay-related funding and policy between Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the federal government, provoked widespread condemnation by environmental groups.

According to Bloomberg Environment, if Maryland continues its suit, the case could end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing and previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress. She is the recipient of a first place award for explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has twice been honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]