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Obama steps up Chesapeake Bay cleanup

Calling it "a national treasure," President Barack Obama on Tuesday issued an executive order dedicated to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, putting the federal government at the head of efforts.
Image: crabbing on the Chesapeake Bay
Randy Plummer looks off into the Chesapeake Bay after a day of crabbing near Ridge, Md., last summer. Plummer, 19, hopes to work as a full-time crabber but is concerned about the future viability of crabbing, and for the health of the Chesapeake Bay.Jacquelyn Martin / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Calling it "a national treasure," President Barack Obama on Tuesday issued an executive order dedicated to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay, putting the federal government at the head of efforts previously led by the states.

The executive order establishes a Federal Leadership Committee, led by the Environmental Protection Agency to oversee restoration programs and orders the EPA to research its authority under the Clean Water Act to restore the Bay.

At a press conference Tuesday on George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate overlooking the Potomac River, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said the bay's poor health requires an urgent federal effort in partnership with the states.

"If we come up short, this may be the last generation of watermen on the Chesapeake Bay," Jackson said.

In recent years, regional leaders have claimed some success in reducing pollution in the bay, the nation's largest estuary, but fisheries like blue crabs and oysters are well below their historic levels and scientists have warned of "dead zones" where nutrients like nitrogen fuel algae growth that deprives the water of needed oxygen levels.

Obama's announcement came as the states that constitute the Bay watershed promised to accelerate their own cleanup efforts.

The six states plus the District of Columbia set goals to reduce the flow of pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus into the Bay by the end of 2011.

The plans, for instance, call for a 6 percent reduction in nitrogen flow between now and 2011, and a 7 percent reduction in phosphorus.

Some environmentalists, though, said the states' goals fall woefully short of what is needed to restore the bay to full health. They welcomed the executive order as a potential federal hammer that will force the states to do more.

It is not yet clear what consequences would apply to states that fail to meet their goals. The EPA is in the midst of crafting its own plan for limiting bay pollution, with specific caps imposed on each state in the watershed for nutrient flow.

John Surrick, a spokesman for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said roughly half of the reductions called for in the states' plans would have occurred anyway due to existing plans to reduce nutrient flow. He said the states could have set more aggressive goals, especially since there's been an influx of federal funds dedicated to such efforts.

The foundation has said the bay could be restored to health in five years if the federal government fully enforced the Clean Water Act. The foundation earlier this year sued the EPA seeking such enforcement. Obama's executive order cites the Clean Water Act as justification for his actions.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, who chairs an interstate council dedicated to bay restoration efforts, said the states wanted to set attainable, short-term goals, rather than pie-in-the-sky long-term goals that would never be reached.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said the reductions are significant and will require a serious policy and financial commitment. Some policies under consideration in Maryland, for instance, include requirements for all new and failing septic systems to be replaced with high-tech systems.

Jackson said the administration wants to work with the states but will be willing to impose penalties down the road if necessary.

Under the plan crafted by the states, more than 60 percent of the planned pollution reductions will come from agriculture, and more than 20 percent will come from improvements to wastewater treatment plants.

Pennsylvania, which controls 35 percent of the land in the watershed, will be expected to contribute 46 percent of the overall reduction in nitrogen flow, more than any other state.

Virginia, which has 34 percent of the land, will be expected to contribute 45 percent of the reduction in the flow of phosphorus.