While Chesapeake Bay pollution from sewage plants and industries has declined overall in recent years, illegal discharges from those sources are still dumping significant amounts of water-fouling nutrients into the troubled estuary, says a Washington-based environmental group.
In a new report, the Environmental Integrity Project finds significant gaps persist in Maryland and the other bay watershed states in enforcement of municipal and industrial water pollution, including lax permitting and infrequent inspections.
The group warns the states' shortcomings in oversight of such discharges undermine the progress being made in restoring the Chesapeake.
Illegal discharges from wastewater treatment plants and industries added more than 730,000 pounds of nitrogen and nearly 46,000 pounds of phosphorus to the bay last year alone, the group says, with more than 12 percent of the largest facilities violating their permit limits for three months or longer.
"These two sectors are arguably the easiest to control," said Tarah Heinzen, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project. She said the report's findings raise concerns about the bay states' ability to meet pollution reduction goals mandated under a federally directed cleanup plan.
Massive amounts of the two nutrients from a variety of sources - including farm and urban runoff and fallout from auto and power plant emissions - fuel algae blooms in the spring and summer that rob the Chesapeake's waters of the oxygen needed to sustain crabs, oysters and other aquatic life. Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and other states that drain to the bay are working to achieve a 20 to 25 percent reduction in nutrients reaching the bay by 2025.
Sewage systems and factories account for about 20 percent of the nitrogen and a quarter of the phosphorus getting into the bay, the report says. While the amounts of nitrogen discharged by those sources have declined in Maryland and almost all other bay states, discharges of the nutrient increased in Pennsylvania from 2010 to 2011, the environmental group found.
Sewage spills and overflows, many caused by storms, draw frequent media attention in Maryland and criticism from rural lawmakers, who complain about farm runoff regulation and limits being placed on development using septic systems. The report found that Maryland is the only state to keep a public accounting of such incidents. Spills, many heavily diluted by rainwater, contributed 66,000 pounds of nitrogen last year to Maryland waters, the report notes. Illegal discharges from state plants violating their permit limits, by comparison, contributed 300,000 pounds in 2011. While spills are a smaller source, Heinzen noted that they can have significant impacts on local water quality in urban areas where they are concentrated.
The report says its estimate of pollution from municipal and industrial sources is understated, because of gaps in reporting discharges by those facilities - 14 percent of facilities last year failed to report anything about their nitrogen discharges for at least three months.
What's more, the group found that a significant number of sewage plants and factories in the bay region still aren't required to control their discharges of nitrogen, or are operating on expired or "administratively continued" permits with potentially outdated nutrient limits. Nine facilities in Maryland, for instance, which have no nitrogen limits in their discharge permits, contributed more than 4 million pounds of the nutrient to state waters last year alone, the group found. They include Baltimore's Patapsco wastewater treatment plant, four in Anne Arundel County and one in Carroll County, according to the report.
"No one said this is going to be easy," Heinzen said, "but there are common-sense steps the bay states should take to reduce industrial and municipal polution, such as including enforceable pollution limits in every discharge permit and taking strong enforcement actions that deter illegal pollution." States ought to inspect major dischargers of nutrients annually, she said, and ought to check more frequently on smaller plants with problems complying. In Maryland, for instance, 20 percent of major dischargers aren't inspected every year, while more than three-fourths of minor facilities aren't even checked every five years.
Jay Apperson, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, said the report "only tells part of the story of our efforts to restore the Bay." He noted that the state is committing vast sums to upgrading the state's 67 largest sewage plants to reduce their nitrogen output. He also defended the agency's enforcement efforts, saying inspections are limited by resources but don't catch most of the violations anyway, which are often self-reported. MDE collected about $550,000 in penalties in 2010 on 288 significant violations cited at sewage plants and industrial facilities, he said.
Apperson acknowledged that some major plants still lack nitrogen limits on their discharges. He attributed that to "technical issues" involved in renewing their permits, but said "it is our goal for all of our major facilities to have nutrient limits in the permits."