Pennsylvania fertilizer runoff impacts health of the Bay

By Alaina Perdon

Elm Staff Writer

Read any scientific journal or speak with any local watermen and it will become abundantly clear that the Chesapeake Bay is suffering from excess nutrient pollution. Nutrients, such as nitrates and phosphates found in fertilizers, run off the land and cause algal blooms in the water, disturbing the entire ecosystem. Fingers usually point to Pennsylvania when assigning blame for this, as the farming operations found in the southeastern region of the state dump fertilizer into the Bay via the Susquehanna River.

Pennsylvania is one of six states that comprise the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a term given to the total area of land that drains its groundwaters into a water body. In this case, the Bay. Any pollutants on the ground in southeastern Pennsylvania will be carried through a system of rivers to the Chesapeake.

Pennsylvania amasses 35% of the watershed, yet the state government seems unhurried to take action to protect the Chesapeake.

Tensions rose within the Chesapeake Bay restoration community last summer, when Pennsylvania revealed it fell 25% short of its portion of the Bay’s pollution reduction goal and lacks nearly $325 million in funding needed to carry out regulatory efforts.

“During Chesapeake Semester, we saw great strides in other states meeting their pollution reduction goals while Pennsylvania lagged behind. This was mainly attributed to agricultural practices in the Lower Susquehanna River,” said junior Willie Cosner, who is also a Pennsylvania native. “These practices do not seem justified when there are simple solutions such as cover crops that can greatly reduce the impact PA is having.”

To add fuel to the fire, the United States Environmental Protection Agency released a review in December 2019 acknowledging the shortfalls of Pennsylvania but has since failed to penalize the state or develop a remediation plan of its own.

The blatant disregard by the EPA is an insult to the organizations on the Delmarva peninsula that work tirelessly to preserve the Bay. An organization named for the protection of the environment should uphold the responsibility such a title brings and put an end to this exploitation of America’s largest estuary.

“That [the] EPA is abdicating its responsibility under the Clean Water Act is a tragedy. Failing to hold Pennsylvania accountable undermines the success we have seen in recent years,” said President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation William C. Baker in a statement to The Baltimore Sun.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation announced Monday, Jan. 27 that it is preparing a lawsuit against the EPA, likely in partnership with the state of Maryland, in hopes of finally forcing federal crackdown on Pennsylvania.

“To meet its 2025 cleanup goals, Pennsylvania needs to reduce the annual amount of nitrogen reaching the Bay by 34 million pounds from estimated 2018 levels,” Karl Blankenship, Bay Journal editor, said. “Its latest plan missed that mark by more than 9 million pounds — more than the entire reduction needed by most other states from now to the deadline.”

Secretary Patrick McDonnell, head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, claims legislators are actively working to seek proper project funding and seemingly deflects Pennsylvania’s responsibility.

“We do not believe we will have an actual gap [in pollution reduction]. We believe there are practices currently undercounted or not counted in terms of the credits received for Pennsylvania.” McDonnell said.

The five other states comprising the Chesapeake Bay watershed have made significant headway in reducing their nutrient and sediment pollution, as well as taking other steps to ease the burden they put on the Bay, such as stricter fishing regulations to prevent overharvesting.

“Pennsylvania’s inaction puts unfair pressure on Maryland to ‘cleans-up’ the bay,” said sophomore Analiese Bush, another WC Chesapeake Semester alumnus also hailing from Pennsylvania. “If PA passed stricter nutrient runoff regulations or encouraged more stream buffers on our part of the watershed then our downstream effects would be significantly lessened.”

Why is Pennsylvania allowed frivolous use of fertilizers with no repercussions? Failure to adhere to agreed-upon regulations reverses the efforts of those elsewhere in the watershed and jeopardizes their quality of life.

Delmarva’s children should not have to play in algae-infested waters because Secretary McDonnell cannot drum up the compassion to allot time and money to a bay he cannot see from his office window.

While Pennsylvania is at fault for its own shortcomings, the EPA is just as much to blame for not enforcing regulations. If the government structure founded on the basis of environmental justice and protection of natural resources begins to turn a blind eye when those structures are under attack, who will we be able to rely on to be the guardians of our defenseless lands and waters?

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