ANNAPOLIS — At the state Board of Public Works meeting Wednesday, Gov. Larry Hogan and State Comptroller Peter Franchot took aim at the mounting trash and debris in Chesapeake Bay.
The agenda, which included items from the Maryland Department of the Environment, was the early focus of both Hogan and Franchot when the issue of debris was introduced.
“The Chesapeake Bay is our state’s most precious natural resource and one of our most significant ecological bodies in the nation,” Franchot said. “Last week’s heavy rainfall, that led to record flows at the Conowingo Dam, was another reminder of the new normal we’re facing. Alarming and unacceptable levels of pollution are the new normal.”
As the debris along the western and Eastern Shore increases, the state Board of Public Works publicly chastised efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the problem.
According to Franchot, the trash and debris that originates in Pennsylvania and New York creates tenuous circumstances for both ships coming into the Baltimore area and for those who make their living on either shore.
“To be blunt, we’re literally drowning in Pennsylvania’s trash. Every state in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Compact needs to start acting like a good neighbor and hold up its end of the bargain. Maryland can’t do it all alone and other states have neglected that thanks to powerful special interests,” he argued.
Citing uncontrolled agricultural runoff, lack of land use regulations and natural river erosion all from Pennsylvania, the comptroller continued to underscore the need for a group effort in fighting the pollution epidemic.
Also not spared was U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (R-1st District) who, according to Franchot, needed to spur the EPA into much-needed damage control.
“I have great respect for Rep. Harris, but he must wake up. This is your bed and your district. Get action-oriented. Also, leaders in other states like Delaware and Virginia are victims like we are. So we need to get together and decide what we need to do collectively,” Franchot said.
Temporary solutions like dredging problem areas have proven to be costly and, at times, ineffective, with some individual pieces of debris being too large. Seeking federal funding for such projects also has proven difficult with shrinking resources.
According to the Fiscal Year 2019 budget released by the Trump administration, the White House was seeking to cut more than $2.5 billion from the annual EPA budget. That represents an overall reduction of more than 23 percent.
That same budget gutted funding for the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay from $72 million to a mere $7 million, and a similar program for the Great Lakes would be cut from $300 million to $30 million with neither being phased out entirely.
“This administration says they want to partner with states, but a 90 percent budget reduction says the opposite,” noted William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in a statement. “The Chesapeake Bay Program is the glue that holds the state and federal partnership together. A cut of this magnitude would severely damage Bay restoration efforts, just at a time when we are seeing significant progress.”
The state itself is not without its legal troubles concerning the Conowingo Dam as its owner, Exelon Corporation, is suing MDE over conditions imposed in a water quality certification that is part of the dam’s federal relicensing process.
According to the suit, the heightened regulations create an “unfair and onerous burden” on the company.
According to the MDE, Exelon also must reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that flows past the dam annually by millions of pounds. Alternatively, the company can pay the state more than $170 million per year. That amounts to more than $7 billion over the term of its license and “exceeds, by orders of magnitude, the economic value of the Conowingo Project as an operating asset,” according to court documents.
“This is an economic and ecological crisis that we have. During a major storm like this, up to 80 percent of all the debris of phosphorous and nitrogen and sediment comes into to Bay through the Conowingo Dam. I can tell you we’ve invested $4 billion into the cleanup of the bay,” Hogan said.
That sum is twice as much as the previous administration did in eight years. The result, according to Hogan, is a bay that is at its cleanest than its been in 33 years.
“As the flood waters recede, it will be very clear that the upstream states need to step up,” Hogan concluded.
Patrick McDonnell, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said “we are disappointed at these careless and insensitive remarks.” He said they undermine the strides Pennsylvania has made in improving water quality in the Susquehanna and Potomac waters and “insult the many Pennsylvanians still recovering from the record floods we just experienced, where at least two of our residents lost their lives.”
“The ‘trash and debris’ that Maryland politicians are complaining about represent devastated communities, damaged businesses and lives ruined,” McDonnell said, adding that it is “hypocritical to place all the blame on Pennsylvania and New York while Maryland has missed its own goals including nitrogen runoff reductions.”
Since before he was elected governor in 2014, Hogan has cited pollution flowing from upstream states like Pennsylvania and New York from the Susquehanna River over the Conowingo Dam and into the bay. During a major storm, he said up to 80 percent of all debris, sediment and pollutants like phosphorus and nitrogen, come over the dam and end up in the bay.
Last week, engineers opened the dam gates, sending tons of water and debris downstream. The dam is located in Maryland, a few miles south of the Pennsylvania line
The governor said Maryland environmental and emergency management officials were working to remove the trees and tires that have washed into Maryland waters. He also said he will be highlighting concerns during a meeting next week of the Chesapeake Executive Council, which Hogan chairs.
“I can assure you that they will leave that meeting with a crystal clear understanding of their role and their responsibilities in addressing this issue,” Hogan said.
The council includes the governors of the six bay watershed states, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the mayor of the District of Columbia. The watershed covers 64,000 square miles and includes Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. The council is the governing body for a multi-state and federal partnership known as the Chesapeake Bay Program.
It is scheduled to meet Tuesday in Baltimore.
Brian Witte from the Associated Press contributed to this article.