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EPA reaches settlement in Chesapeake lawsuit

The Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach near the Chesapeake Bay.
Katherine Hafner
WHRO News File
The Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach near the Chesapeake Bay.

Virginia is among several states claiming Pennsylvania's efforts came up short.

The Environmental Protection Agency committed this week to ramping up oversight of Pennsylvania’s efforts to reduce pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay as part of a settlement agreement with Virginia and other states.

Under the agreement, the EPA will work with Pennsylvania regulators to decrease pollution from crop and livestock farms in the Susquehanna River watershed. Although the Chesapeake doesn’t extend into Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna drains tens of millions of tons of pollutants into the bay yearly, making the state one of its biggest polluters.

Pennsylvania, like other bay states, is responsible for submitting Watershed Implementation Plans that show how it will meet federal pollution reduction goals. The EPA found that its current plan and funding outlook for pollution programs won’t have the state in compliance by a 2025 deadline — despite multiple revisions.

Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Washington, D.C. sued the EPA in 2020, alleging the agency wasn’t taking action against Pennsylvania for falling behind on Chesapeake Bay Program goals.

A separate suit was filed by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Anne Arundel County, Maryland, the Maryland Watermen’s Association, and two Virginia cattle farmers and conservationists — Robert Whitescarver and Jeanne Hoffman. The cases were eventually merged.

The EPA submitted terms of the settlement in April, which were reviewed in a public comment period. Peggy Sanner, Virginia director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said the settlement re-commits the EPA to regulating Pennsylvania’s cleanup efforts.

“While there are certain tools that are regulatory in nature, the overall tone of the commitments is underscored by serious steps requiring collaboration,” Sanner said.

The EPA will also get more involved in the pollution permitting process — ensuring that everyone who needs a permit has one, that they’re not polluting more than they’re allowed and that state regulators update permits at regular intervals.

Federal and state regulators will specifically look at large animal farms for permitting. If animal waste isn’t handled properly, it can run off into waterways and contribute to algal blooms that choke out other forms of aquatic life.

Grant money would be used to better inform farmers about agricultural best management practices. BMPs are relatively low-cost pollution controls — like fences to keep livestock out of streams. The money will also help pay for installation costs and technical assistance with those practices.

As part of the agreement, the EPA will also continue evaluating states’ progress on the 2025 goal well after that initial deadline passes. A compliance report is due on Dec. 31, 2026.

“It’s a statement of, in some ways, a recommitment to the whole bay restoration effort,” Sanner said.

She said that’s needed: According to the Bay Foundation’s own analysis, “states are not on track to reduce pollution to the levels needed for a healthy Bay, or implement the practices necessary to achieve them by the 2025 deadline.”

Virginia is also behind on its cleanup goals and is considering how best to get caught up. Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration has funded agricultural BMP programs at historic levels in recent years, according to the Bay Foundation. Youngkin proposed more funding this year, but lawmakers have failed agree on changes to the budget.

The General Assembly also moved to take some pressure off of farmers this year, acknowledging a range of factors have led to slow uptake of pollution controls, like costs. Previously, if agricultural pollution goals were not met by 2026, regulators could take action to mandate the installation of BMPs and other measures.

Legislators pushed that back to 2028.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.