Seeking Clarity: Penalties loom for Pa.'s failure to meet fed water pollution standards


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Video: Young environmentalist Brynn Kelly at work

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Wrightsville resident Brynn Kelly remembers always being the kid falling behind during summer camp nature walks when she was younger. She'd hold up the rest of her group, taking in her entire surroundings.

"I would be checking out salamanders in the stream, wanting to know everything that was going on," the 17-year-old Lancaster Catholic High School senior remembers.

Brynn's passion for nature and wildlife has only grown as she's gotten older, with plans to focus on environmental science and education in college.

But that passion leads to frustration with Pennsylvania's water pollution.

Earlier this year, Brynn wrote a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf, urging the York County Democrat to make the Chesapeake Bay Clean Water Blueprint a greater priority in Pennsylvania.

The blueprint is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's reference to a combination of the Environmental Protection Agency's bay total maximum daily load (TMDL), established in 2010 to reduce water pollution, and subsequent watershed implementation plans (WIP) developed by each of the six watershed states and the District of Columbia to implement state-specific cleanup plans.

But much like Brynn at her former summer camps, Pennsylvania is falling behind.

Off track: Harry Campbell, executive director of the foundation's Pennsylvania chapter, said the state is significantly more off track in its goals than the other states.

The pollution standards the EPA set for the bay — which address excessive nitrogen, phosphorous and sediment levels — are supposed to be 60 percent completed by 2017 and fully implemented by 2025.

A 2014 EPA report indicates Pennsylvania is only on track to meet its 2017 target for phosphorous pollution.

Pennsylvania's sediment and nitrogen goals are both more than 10 percent off track to meet 2017 goals and, in particular, the state is responsible for nearly 80 percent of the bay's shortcomings in nitrogen pollution reductions, Campbell said.

Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection's implementation plan included pollution-reducing practices of adding forest buffers, nutrient management, conservation tillage and urban infiltration — all of which are off track, with only conservation tillage even close, according to the EPA report.

No follow-through: Campbell said the foundation's efforts to clean up the bay have been frustrating because the science is available and the plan is in place, but the effort isn't being exerted to "get the job done."

He said this lack of follow-through isn't anything new, as plans to clean up the bay haven't been fully implemented since the watershed states first came to an agreement to work together in 1983.

"Similar to what we've done in the past, we've created a great plan on paper, it should work, it'll meet our requirements, but we've never provided the leadership and resources needed to actually implement that plan," Campbell said.

"We've done great collectively over the last several decades and made significant investments and improvements, but why should we stop there? We can finish the job if we want to."

Penalties loom: This latest plan comes with a new sense of urgency, Campbell said, as the EPA has the authority to impose penalties under the federal Clean Water Act if it determines progress isn't being made, likely in 2017. One possible punishment could be forcing Pennsylvania to increase the technology of its waste-water treatment plants, which Campbell said are already doing their part to reduce pollution.

"It's exponentially expensive, will get very little improvement in the overall effort, and everyone knows that, but it's punishment to the state of Pennsylvania for not dealing with the core of the issue," he said.

"Rate-payers will see that in their pocket books."

Campbell's foundation can't determine the exact economic impacts EPA punishments would have on Pennsylvania citizens, but it has calculated approximate state economic impacts associated with following the blueprint.

Taking into account a variety of benefits, including recreation, food production and climate stability, a fully implemented blueprint will provide nearly an additional $6.2 billion per year to Pennsylvania, while maintaining current levels of pollution will result in a decrease of nearly $1.8 billion per year, according to its 2014 report.

Bigger picture: While none of the actual Chesapeake Bay resides in Pennsylvania, Campbell said the bay's problems are reflected in the Susquehanna River, which covers 43 percent of the bay's watershed, flows past Harrisburg and York and Lancaster counties, and deposits 22 billion to 25 billion gallons of water into the bay daily.

In 2011, American Rivers named the Susquehanna America's Most Endangered River, citing potential pollution coming from the increase in natural gas fracking surrounding the river.

Campbell said he's concerned about the potential impacts new pipeline construction could have on the plan to add more forest buffers, but fracking has not caused any significant issues yet.

The Susquehanna's pollution levels are still cause for concern, according to John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

Arway's main concern comes from the dramatic decline in smallmouth bass population since 2005, which has led his commission to file yearly requests for the DEP to label the Susquehanna impaired, requiring the EPA to set limitations on pollution in the same manner it has for the bay.

The DEP hasn't placed the impairment distinction on the river.

DEP spokesman Neil Shader wrote in an email that the department is devoting "a great deal of its resources" to studying the health of the river "until a well-informed scientific decision can be made."

He wrote that the DEP evaluates four protected water uses to determine impairment: aquatic life, fish consumption, potable water supply and recreation.

Arway, Campbell and other representatives from the foundation and commission spoke on the issue at a round-table discussion, which the DEP declined an invitation to attend.

"I think the science is about as clear as we can make it," Arway said of his commission's efforts to convince the DEP.

"The reality is we need to start working on fixing the river until the bass get better. It's as simple as that, and we've been reluctant to do that because we've been jockeying for position on the impairment question."

— Reach David Weissman at