City, counties foresee costly bay cleanup tab
Maryland's counties and cities say they will need to spend billions of dollars to take the extra steps needed to restore the Chesapeake Bay to health by 2020, the deadline the state gave them for action.

In cash-strapped Baltimore, for example, officials estimate added cleanup measures will cost more than $250 million over the next six years. They say they'll seek City Council approval next month to levy a fee on all property owners to help pay for controlling polluted runoff from streets, alleys and parking lots.

Baltimore County officials project needing up to $200 million for similar projects, while Anne Arundel County foresees needing more than $1.6 billion to upgrade septic systems and to curb storm-water runoff.

Other counties, meanwhile, failed to deliver draft cleanup plans to the state by the November deadline, and still others questioned the state's targets and data.

Faced with such price tags and the need to significantly increase their pollution-control efforts, local officials have joined farm groups in appealing to the state to give them more time, relaxing the cleanup timetable to match that being used by all other bay states.

In response, Maryland Environment Secretary Robert M. Summers said in an interview that top O'Malley administration officials have agreed to stretch the state's bay cleanup action deadline by five more years, from 2020 to 2025.

Gov. Martin O'Malley had pledged that Maryland would show its leadership in the regional restoration effort by completing its plan five years earlier than other states. Under a "pollution diet" adopted last year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, all six bay states must act by 2025 to achieve a 15 percent to 25 percent reduction in the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment fouling the bay's waters.

Summers said O'Malley's "Bay Cabinet" of agency heads recently decided to back off the early deadline the state had set, though he insisted it's no relaxation of the overall cleanup effort.

"We're just recognizing the reality that this is a huge hill we're climbing here," he said. "And looking at the plans and the types of funding and so forth, it just seems clear it's just physically going to take that time frame to complete."

Summers said counties and municipalities were asked to outline what they plan to do at least over the next two years to help reduce bay pollution. Maryland is using the local plans to prepare its own bay cleanup road map for the EPA, which is due Thursday.

Calvert, Talbot and Worcester counties did not submit plans by the deadline. Talbot Planning Officer Sandy Coyman emailed that the county's strategy had to be redone because the state changed the county's pollution targets less than three weeks before the due date. The County Council approved the plan last week, he said.

Calvert's commissioners are scheduled to review their plan Tuesday, according to a county planner. And Worcester's commissioners, after expressing some discomfort with getting too specific in their plan, ordered changes to it and informed the state they'd submit it after their next meeting Dec. 20.

Carroll County submitted a report to the state of the steps it was already taking to help restore the bay but didn't propose any additional measures because of doubts about the state's pollution targets for the county. Brenda J.M. Dinne, special projects planner with the county, said officials believed the state's figures were "wildly off base" and so were wary of proposing anything based on them.

Summers said state officials would fill in the blanks for the counties that didn't propose any new cleanup efforts or didn't submit a plan at all. But the cleanup plan won't be final until July, the MDE secretary noted, so there's still time for local officials to join in and "help control their own destiny."

"The numbers are evolving," Summers said of the pollution reductions assigned to each locality. Adjustments have been and will be made as better information comes in, he said.

But the ambiguity shouldn't be an excuse for inaction, he said. "There's no danger that anybody is going to overshoot their targets using this model."

The size of the pollution reductions required to meet the EPA's baywide "pollution diet" is requiring states — and localities — to vastly increase the scope and pace of cleanup efforts.

Jenn Aiosa, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that some local officials seem reluctant to commit to anything because of the cost estimates and questions about the computer model the state was using to assign cleanup targets. She predicted that costs would abate as experts figure out more efficient ways to reduce pollution.

"We know that especially in some counties it is going to expensive," she said. "But I think that is indicative of how much damage we have done to our watersheds over the last several decades."