Cleanup plan for watershed causes 'sticker shock'

Preliminary price tag to meet EPA requirements is $1.1 billion for county, municipalities

May 26, 2012|By JULIE E. GREENE |
  • Julie Pippel, director for Washington County's Division of Environmental Management, speaks to the Washington County Commissioners on May 22.
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

“Ridiculous,” “sticker shock” and flat-out laughter were some of the reactions of local elected officials to a list of $1.1 billion in suggested ways to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous discharges in Washington County in an effort to improve Chesapeake Bay’s health.

The county’s Watershed Implementation Plan Committee has until June 30 to submit a plan to the Maryland Department of the Environment describing what the county and its municipalities will do — or will try to do — to reach targeted reductions in nitrogen and phosphorous discharges within 13 years, said Julie Pippel, director of Washington County’s Division of Environmental Management.

The Environmental Protection Agency has set the target amounts by which states and the District of Columbia should reduce nitrogen and phosphorous discharges into the bay’s watershed, but the states, through the Chesapeake Bay Program Partnership set the 2025 deadline, said Jeff Corbin, senior advisor to the EPA administrator for Chesapeake Bay.

The EPA set the nutrient reduction targets for the states in response to consent degrees it received after the EPA was sued more than 10 years ago by environmental groups because the federal agency wasn’t following through on part of the Clean Water Act in developing, or requiring states to develop, a plan to reduce those nutrients, Corbin said.

As a result, local governments, and in some cases residents, need to make improvements within the next 13 years to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous making its way into the bay watershed via wastewater, stormwater and septic systems, Pippel said.

The agricultural issue will be handled separately, Pippel said.

The Washington County Health Department, as a result of new regulations from the state environment department, already is changing its policies so that starting in July 2013, new septic systems and repairs made to certain existing septic systems must include upgrades to reduce the amount of nitrogen the septic tanks discharge, said David Barnhart, the local health department’s director of environmental health.

The county’s Watershed Implementation Plan Committee created a list of unspecified projects or practices that local governments could tackle to help reduce nitrogen and phosphorous discharged into the local watershed, Pippel said. Those projects or practices came with estimated costs.

Too much nitrogen and phosphorous in the bay causes algae blooms, which can cut off sunlight to the water and, as they decompose, deplete the water’s oxygen supply, officials said. That suffocates aquatic life such as crabs and oysters.

“Healthwise, the bay is in pretty bad shape,” Corbin said.

Evidence of that are the massive mahogany tides or algae blooms that can be seen floating atop the bay this time of year, the fish kills that appear during the spring and summer, and the insufficient amount of underwater grasses that provide food and habitat such as shelter for juvenile blue crabs, he said.

The bay also is an economic engine, Corbin said. What would the bay’s worth be to fisheries, boaters, recreation businesses and others if it were in better shape, he asked.

Weighing the cost

While it’s the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous the EPA wants states to reduce, it’s the estimated price tags that have drawn much of the attention of local officials when they hear about the plan, which is due at the end of June.

Those price tags could change as better ways to reduce the nutrients are sought and the county works with state officials to provide better data to the EPA about local geography, Pippel said.

The estimated cost for local municipalities to make improvements by 2025 range from $2.6 million for Sharpsburg to make stormwater improvements to $220.3 million in wastewater and stormwater improvements in Hagerstown, according to information in a county document provided at the May 22 Washington County Commissioners meeting.

Washington County’s estimated costs are $794.3 million. Of that, $514.8 million would go toward reducing nutrients in stormwater discharges, $230.2 million would be aimed at septic system discharges and $49.3 million would go toward wastewater treatment plant improvements.

The county is in the preliminary design stages for making improvements to its sewage treatment plants, Pippel said.

Hagerstown completed its sewage treatment plant upgrades related to nitrogen and phosphorous reduction in December 2010, according to an email from Mike Spiker, the city’s director of utilities.

The commissioners voted unanimously May 22 to send in a plan that states the county will do what it can as it can afford to because the estimated costs are financially unachievable, Pippel said.

Pippel said she anticipates elected officials with the county’s municipalities will respond in a similar manner.

If the local governments fail to make improvements to meet their nutrient reduction targets by 2025, the EPA could penalize them by pulling federal funding such as grants or capping sewage treatment capacity, which would affect future commercial and residential growth, Pippel said.

The EPA has not said how or when it would enforce consequences, Pippel said.

There are still many unanswered questions concerning the process, she said.

The carrot or the stick?

Corbin, the EPA administrator’s adviser about the bay, said the goal is not to take action or to levy penalties against the state or localities.

But while the EPA wants to be as adaptive and as flexible as it can as states and localities try to meet the 2025 deadline, the EPA might end up using the stick rather than a carrot in getting them to meet the nutrient reduction goals, he said. He noted that the EPA has regulatory authority over some permits.

As for capping sewage treatment plant capacity as a possible penalty, Corbin said most sewage treatment plants that use the best technology available aren’t close to maxing out their permitted flow.

The $1.1 billion price tag, countywide, gave Washington County Commissioner Ruth Anne Callaham “sticker shock,” she said during the May 22 Watershed Implementation Plan presentation to the commissioners.

Williamsport Mayor James G. McCleaf II used the word “ridiculous” at least five times during a recent interview about the plan, which listed an estimated $11.7 million cost for stormwater improvements in the town.

Asked recently what his reaction was to hearing about the plan at a Keedysville Town Council meeting, Keedysville Mayor Matthew Hull laughed.

“The words for it — confused, disheartened, anxious, pick something of that nature,” Hull said.

Corbin said the estimated costs could decrease as local officials better understand what needs to be done and find alternative ways to reduce the nutrients. One county initially had a figure in the billions to address stormwater discharges, but those costs came down considerably, to around $100 million, after local officials got a better understanding of what they need to do, he said.

“There’s good news and there’s bad news for this,” Corbin said. “We’ve been trying to get the localities to pay attention to this for a very long time. That’s the good news. The bad news is there are costs associated with this.”

“I don’t mean to belittle the cost. They can be significant for some of these localities,” Corbin said.

Listing the options

Pippel has been going to town and county meetings explaining the plan and the options of the local governments, and has been greeted with dismay in some cases.

At a May 14 Funkstown Town Council meeting, Pippel told the mayor and council, “Don’t worry. Let me get to the end before you panic. ... You’re not in this alone.”

Funkstown Councilman Richard Gaver asked about getting some of the flush tax money, which town residents pay through their water and sewer bills, back to help the town attack some of the $4 million in projects.

Pippel told Funkstown officials there will be state money designated in the future for grants to help with stormwater improvements.

Pippel, chairwoman of the county’s Watershed Implementation Plan Committee, has been listing options for municipal and county officials:

  • Tell the state they won’t do anything.
  • Tell the state they will do the suggested projects or practices within 13 years.
  • Tell the state they recognize the issue and will make improvements as they can afford to, but they cannot adopt a plan under which they would spend the estimated amount because it is financially unfeasible and fiscally irresponsible.
“We will do our best to do things,” McCleaf said.

He speculated on the idea of all of the counties and municipalities telling the state “where to put all this.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m for doing whatever (we) can to help the environment, but (we) need a common-sense approach,” McCleaf said.

“It’s just ridiculous. I mean, come on,” McCleaf said.

Hull said Keedysville is not in financial shape to tackle the stormwater projects. The town just took on $4 million in improvements to its water system, an amount that will take decades to pay off, he said.

“We know that ($1.1 billion) just exceeds anybody’s financial capabilities,” Pippel said Wednesday.

Local governments will just do what they can afford to do, she said.

Dividing the work

Hull said he’s not a scientist, but he didn’t consider the Watershed Implementation Plan to be fair.

“I think their model is skewed tremendously,” Hull said.

To reduce the amount of nutrients heading to the bay, the EPA provided the six states — Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Delaware and New York — and the District of Columbia — all in Chesapeake Bay’s watershed — with a target goal for reducing nitrogen and phosphorous discharges.

The Maryland Department of the Environment provided Washington County with its target reduction amount for nitrogen and phosphorous, Pippel said. The committee divided that target among the county and its municipalities based on acreage.

Committee members considered what projects or practices were suitable for the geography and determined what percentage of different projects or practices each local government might do to meet the discharge reduction goals, Pippel said.

Projects could include building rain gardens; restoring streambanks; and replacing blacktop swales, in which stormwater drains into creeks, with natural landscaping that slows the discharge of nitrogen and phosphorous into the creeks.

The estimated costs for the various projects or practices were developed using information provided by a researcher at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, Pippel said.

The list of recommendations the County Commissioners unanimously approved May 22, as part of their watershed plan, include working with Maryland Department of the Environment officials to refine the county’s targets for reducing nitrogen and phosphorous so they better reflect the county’s true conditions.

Those conditions aren’t just the county’s distance from the bay, but involve more specific data about the county’s lands than EPA or state environment officials would have used, Pippel said.

One of the big misperceptions is that the plans being prepared have to be implemented as written, Corbin said.

“If you come up with a better way to do it, then by all means do it differently,” Corbin said.

The nine-point plan the county approved also includes:
  • Budgeting projects as they can be afforded.
  • Developing a project list for funding consideration.
  • Pursuing funding sources for those projects.
  • Investigating new ways to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous discharges.
  • Developing a tracking and reporting system for best management practices for the county.
  • Working on a policy to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous discharges related to future development.
  • Educating the public about what it can do to help.
  • Continuing to work on the Watershed Implementation Plan and not committing the county to any work that is not funded.

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