In response to pressure from conservation groups and others, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed stronger limits on pollution from the area’s largest sewage plant that threatens the Chesapeake Bay. The proposal dramatically strengthens a much weaker permit proposed by the agency last August for the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant in Southwest Washington. Earthjustice challenged the legality of the weaker permit in comments filed on behalf of Friends of the Earth and Sierra Club. The new proposal, issued late last week, sets tighter caps on nitrogen, a pollutant that contributes to oxygen depletion that leads to summertime "dead zones" in the bay.
"This action is a welcome step toward cleaner water and a healthier future for the Chesapeake Bay," said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. "The prior proposal violated legal requirements for cleaning up the bay. We called for stronger protections and EPA finally listened."
Blue Plains is the largest single point source of nitrogen in the Potomac basin. The revised permit proposal would limit nitrogen discharges from the plant to 4.689 million pounds per year, a marked reduction from the nearly 8.5 million pounds allowed under the prior proposal.
Nitrogen pollution leads to huge blooms of algae in the bay. When the algae die and begin decomposing, oxygen levels fall dangerously low, threatening fish and other aquatic life. During summer months, low dissolved oxygen levels in the Chesapeake lead to "dead zones" that stretch for miles. In July 2003, one of the largest "dead zones" surfaced since monitoring began 20 years ago, affecting approximately 40 percent of the bay’s main stem near Baltimore, and extending for more than 100 miles south.
The Chesapeake Bay Agreement commits the District and states in the bay region to achieve cleanup goals for the Bay by 2010. Nitrogen caps on sewage plants like Blue Plains are part of the cleanup strategy.