Chesapeake Bay Suffering Nitrogen Overload
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland, October 30, 2003 (ENS) - More than two thirds of sewage treatment plants that discharge wastewater into the Chesapeake Bay do not use any technologies to remove nitrogen pollution, according to a new report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Nitrogen pollution is considered the single largest problem facing the restoration of the bay, which many believe is an ecosystem in serious peril.
The report comes on the heels of analysis by the environmental group that indicates more nitrogen is polluting the Chesapeake Bay than previously thought.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation says 459 million pounds of nitrogen pollution will likely flow into the bay in 2003. The new data establishes a 10 year average of 320 million pounds of nitrogen pollution a year, an increase over recent projections of 275 million pounds.
It is estimated that in the early 1600s, the Chesapeake Bay absorbed some 50 million pounds of nitrogen annually.
The Foundation's analysis casts further doubt on the ability of states and federal agencies to meet a voluntary goal to cut nitrogen pollution to 175 million pounds by 2010.
Excess nitrogen causes algae overgrowth that kills fish and harms bay grasses, which are vital habitat for crabs and small fish - this year it has contributing to one of the largest "dead zones" observed by scientists in almost 20 years of data collection.
At one point the dead zone - an area of the bay starved of oxygen because of nitrogen pollution - cover 40 percent of the Chesapeake's main stem and stretched 150 miles.
Wastewater discharged from the 304 sewage treatment plants within the watershed is the second largest source of nitrogen pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, contributing some 52 million pounds annually.
Although agriculture runoff is the largest source of nitrogen pollution, accounting for 42 percent of the total, wastewater from sewage treatment plants is the most tempting target because it is easy to identify and control.
There are 304 sewage treatment plants across the six states - Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and West Virginia - that cover the bay's 64,000 square mile watershed.
Advocates say reducing nitrogen releases from sewage treatment plants to 3 milligrams per liter (mpl) is needed to effectively limit their contribution to the nitrogen problem.
But analysis of 2002 data finds that only 10 plants - accounting for less than 2 percent of the total wastewater flow into the bay - are achieving this standard, the Foundation says.
And two thirds of plants do not use any controls, thereby releasing wastewater into the bay that has concentrations of nitrogen pollution of some 18 mpl.
If all sewage treatment plants were upgraded to the 3 mpl standard, it could cut 39 million pounds of nitrogen pollution, the Foundation reports.
These findings underscore the "need for immediate action to reduce nitrogen pollution from sewage treatment plants," said Chesapeake Bay Foundation President and CEO William Baker.
Part of the problem is simple regulatory oversight - not one permit for any discharger into the bay's watershed has nitrogen limits, even the though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has confirmed that states have the authority to set permit limits for nitrogen pollution from sewage treatment plants.
But cost is another formidable barrier.
The EPA estimates these upgrades could cost upwards of $4 billion, although bay advocates contend the price of inaction is far higher.
And Maryland state officials estimate the billions needed to upgrade sewage treatment plants in Maryland, for example, translates into an annual cost of between $5 to $14 per household.
Environmentalist warn that the pressures on the Chesapeake Bay look set to increase - more than 15 million people live in the watershed and this population is expected to grow to 18 million by 2010.
Baker is becoming increasingly frustrated with the effort to restore and save the Chesapeake Bay and has called for a new federal-state compact that expands the current executive council to include all six governors of the watershed states and is accountable for implementing specific actions to achieve water quality goals.
The current executive council tasked with forming and enacting restoration efforts consists of the governors of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania, as well as representatives from the DC government and the EPA.
But the executive council lacks the authority to adopt regional, legally binding restoration goals and has no means to ensure compliance with any measures it may agree to.
For the Chesapeake Bay's health to improve, some advocates say, this must change and Baker has called for the new compact to be armed with the legal authority to enforce restoration goals and the bonding authority to raise the funding needed to implement them.
The changes Baker has proposed would require congressional action and some might question the call for yet another bureaucracy to take charge of the restoration of the Chesapeake.
But Baker says it is clear the current framework is not working and he is adamant that an entity with strong authority must be created to reverse the status quo.
Finding the money is another issue. About $6 billion has been budgeted for the Bay thus far, but protecting and restoring the Bay could cost some $20 billion over 10 years.
The executive council will meet in December 2003 and Baker says leaders have a "historic opportunity to chart a course that will lead to a restored Chesapeake Bay."
"To achieve that goal will require bold actions to reduce nitrogen pollution, with enforceable limits and timetables," Baker said. "Bay scientists have established what needs to be done, the ball is now in the executive council's court."
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