Bay dream believers

BALTIMORE – Sightseers strolled along the harbor here last weekend, looking over rickety piers toward the fog-coated Chesapeake Bay.

In Baltimore, where cars sport “Treasure the Chesapeake” license plates and “Save the Bay” bumper stickers, many say the once-declining blue crab population has rebounded – the partial result, environmental groups claim, of federal and state rules that help clean up the Chesapeake’s 64,000-square-mile watershed.

But 200 miles upstream in mountainous central Pennsylvania, homeowners, businesses and local governments have paid a price for the bay’s recovery: massive wastewater cleanup projects, often in the tens of millions of dollars, with exponential sewer-bill hikes covering what grants and loans don’t.

Progressively broader regulations mean water customers, both in large cities like Altoona and tiny communities like Williamsburg and Gallitzin, find themselves on the hook for multimillion-dollar upgrades that often carry few immediately tangible local benefits. The only alternative is to spend money on a commodity market that lets municipalities “pay to pollute” for as long as they can afford it.

Still, environmental groups say, locals will one day reap the benefits of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup – it may simply be a matter of patience.

A call to action

Today’s restrictions follow a trail leading back to the 1960s and ’70s, when environmentalism came into vogue and the Clean Water Act first established clear, nationwide standards for water pollution.

The Chesapeake Bay, already unrecognizable from the time 17th-century English explorer John Smith first described its beauty, was hit increasingly hard by the highly concentrated population in surrounding states. Oxygen-deprived wildlife died out en masse, throwing the food chain out of balance.

U.S. Sen. Charles Mathias, R-Md., toured the declining bay in 1973, and within two years Congress ordered a series of studies to determine just how bad conditions had become.

In the 1970s, investigators first discovered the “dead zone” that today chokes out so much bay wildlife.

Pennsylvania’s direct involvement in the bay’s cleanup began in 1983, when then-Gov. Richard Thornburgh joined representatives from Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and the Environmental Protection Agency to officially recognize the “historical decline” in the bay’s living resources.

A second agreement, in 1987, detailed plans to control water pollution – including a bold statement that nutrient pollution could be reduced 40 percent by the year 2000.

Time and again the states failed to adhere to their voluntary agreements, so by the new millennium, the EPA mandated that the interstate Chesapeake Bay Commission’s signatories take serious action to keep their promises, Harry Campbell, senior scientist for the Pennsylvania arm of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit group promoting the bay’s recovery, said.

Pennsylvania’s most stringent policies would arrive in the years soon afterward.

‘A shadow of itself’

Opening their sewer bills this month, Altoona residents may have noticed a 12 percent uptick in rates, or $4.50 more per month for an average user. This is the third year in a gradual four-year price increase that, by its completion, will represent a 58 percent hike for customers.

That extra $4.50 is set to help cover a years-long, $70 million upgrade to Altoona’s twin wastewater treatment plants. Neither project is totally finished, but Westerly has been treating all inflow using the new process for more than a year and Easterly has been doing that for about a month. The upgrade solves a problem that everyday customers might not realize exists: the flow of microscopic, seemingly harmless nutrients from their plumbing to the Juniata River’s tributaries.

The nutrients nitrogen and phosphorous, found in food, fertilizer and some chemicals, make their way into the creeks and streams that comprise the Juniata River watershed. From there, they snake through 100 miles of mountains to the Susquehanna River, which empties 300,000 gallons of water each second into the Chesapeake Bay.

Those nutrients, along with other pollutants from six states and Washington, D.C., provoke annual algae growth that chokes out oxygen, kills Chesapeake wildlife and forms a brown “dead zone” covering a massive swath of the bay each summer.

“Today it’s just a shadow of itself,” said Campbell. “Roughly half of Pennsylvania drains to the Chesapeake Bay. Whatever hitches a ride to that water … eventually finds its way to the bay.”

Decades of attempts to voluntarily clean the bay’s watershed failed, Campbell said. In 1999, a court agreement set the stage for strictly enforced, multi-state pollution limits.

“Stringent new regulations … are among the toughest in the bay watershed,” a 2004 state Department of Environmental Protection strategy stated.

Among those regulations is a plan to force nearly 200 Pennsylvania wastewater treatment plants to adhere to new nutrient-runoff limits, with deadlines staggered over several years based on size. The largest plants – often the most expensive to improve – were the first to receive notice.

Expensive changes

“We’ve known this was coming for quite a while,” Altoona Water Authority Engineer Mike Sinisi said last week.

To comply with Chesapeake regulations, Altoona’s Easterly and Westerly treatment plants were upgraded with “denitrification” capabilities, by which chemicals encourage the growth of nitrogen-devouring bacteria.

The cost to customers, even after millions of dollars in state grants, was around $55 million, according to authority tallies. That includes $30 million in low-interest loans from Pennvest, the state’s infrastructure investment arm.

The tens of millions not covered by state grants has to be covered somehow; it’s what several authority officials have called an unfunded mandate.

“You have to pay for it. That’s one of the things we tried to get across when we bumped the rates,” Sinisi said. “Seriously, where else are you going to find $70 million?”

Altoona’s treatment plants are now operating far below the state nutrient maximums, Sinisi said. While the upgrades helped add some capacity at the Westerly plant, located south of the city, the Easterly plant received little direct benefit beyond cleaning the Chesapeake watershed.

In Huntingdon, where nutrient runoff from two state prisons and thousands of residents flows into the Juniata River, a series of modernizing upgrades completed in 2011 have brought the borough’s levels within government guidelines, Ray Myers, an engineer with Harrisburg-based engineering firm CET-GHD, said.

The price tag? Roughly $18 million. State assistance covered some $11 million, Myers said, and other much-needed upgrades benefited local customers.

But, as in other boroughs and cities, that modernization came at a steep cost. In 2008, with council members facing rising expenses, customers in Huntingdon Borough saw a 91 percent increase to their monthly sewer bills.

“They [state officials] are saying to you, ‘You have to have your customers maxed out before we give you grant money,'” said Nancy Knee, administrative assistant at the Gallitzin Borough Sewer and Disposal Authority.

Gallitzin customers, too, will likely see continuing rate increases to help cover a $16.6 million project, Knee said.

Last week, Williamsburg accepted bids from five contractors for a brand new, ground-up treatment plant to the tune of $12 million, borough working supervisor Joe Lansberry said. With just 1,254 residents to pay off $8 million in state loans, ongoing rate increases are almost a certainty, officials there said.

The legally enforced Chesapeake Bay Program requires 60 percent compliance by 2017 and total compliance by 2025, meaning scores of communities throughout the state have found themselves in need of expensive updates.

In Lock Haven, it cost $32 million; in Lebanon, $54 million; in Lewistown, $19 million, according to local news reports.

Do these upgrades help the locals who pay the bills?

“That’s a difficult question,” Knee said.

To rent or to buy?

Municipalities that can’t gather the money for upgrades have an alternative, if only a temporary one: They can buy credits, traded from pollution-reducing cities and businesses, that allow them to exceed regulatory limits.

It’s been criticized by some environmentalists as a “pay-to-pollute” scheme, but for places like Clearfield, it can be a lifesaver.

“We’re at the vulnerability of the credit market,” said Clearfield Municipal Authority Manager Jeff Williams, whose office has spent $400,000 annually on credits for the past three years. They buy credits from cities like Altoona, which essentially have pollution to spare after installing mandated upgrades.

The credits are relatively cheap at the moment, but there’s no guarantee for the future.

“It’s like: Do you want to buy or do you want to rent?” Williams said.

Clearfield faces up to $30 million in modifications, he said, and without an affordable funding package, it will likely rely on the credit system for years to come.

Williams questioned why the Chesapeake Bay regulations seem to fall overwhelmingly on concentrated municipalities like Clearfield – especially when even the Chesapeake Bay Program’s statistics indicate that only a fraction of nutrient pollution originates in wastewater.

Ten to 20 percent of the Pennsylvania watersheds’ nutrient pollution can be traced to wastewater, a program chart indicates, while more than half derives from agriculture. Fertilizer, animal waste and badly maintained river walls in rural areas all contribute heavily to nutrient pollution.

“They’re going after smaller and smaller plants,” Williams said. “I’m all for protecting the bay … but if you take every ounce out of every plant, you’re still only going to get 20 percent.”

‘An easy target’

It’s a common sight: on Amish farms in Lancaster County and family plots in the Allegheny Mountains, cows wander through creeks and shallow rivers, trampling down mud walls, expelling waste into the water and eating pollution-cleaning plants. It all contributes heavily to nutrient runoff.

Environmental groups have made efforts to reach out to Pennsylvania farmers, but the weight of government rules falls heavier on cities, Campbell, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation scientist, acknowledged.

“There’s a different level of engagement, if you will,” Campbell said.

State policies exist to control farm practices, but they’re often hard to enforce – and in some cases, farmers aren’t even aware they exist, he said.

Campbell likened it to a road with speed-limit signs but no police: There’s no motivation to comply.

Because water authorities are publicly controlled and rely on masses of rate payers, they’re easier to change through policy, he said.

Williams put it more simply.

“They were an easy target,” he said.

Other states have managed to lessen the weight on cities. In Maryland, for example, the state levies a “flush tax” on anyone connected to the sewer system. The money helps cover upgrades to municipalities of all sizes, Williams noted.

Helping themselves

Those living in Scranton and Altoona and Huntingdon probably don’t think often of the Chesapeake Bay or its health, Campbell said.

“There’s no connectivity,” he said.

But they do care about their locals rivers and streams, and to 17.5 million people from upstate New York to coastal Virginia, the Chesapeake can serve as a 4,500-square-mile measure of their own environment, Campbell said.

Those same nutrients that choke out the Chesapeake and kill sea life aren’t inherently harmful to humans, but in high enough quantities – including those found in some agriculture- and pollution-heavy Pennsylvania regions – they can make water undrinkable.

“You’ll find streams [in Pennsylvania] almost devoid of any life whatsoever,” Campbell said.

Rather than seeing the Chesapeake policies as distant rules imposed on local cities and towns, central Pennsylvanians should view them as efforts to clean their own rivers, he said.

And if the Chesapeake is an indicator of local water health, there’s some reason for at least cautious optimism: According to the foundation’s latest “State of the Bay” report, released earlier this month, phosphorous pollution there has followed a gradual downward trend. Some sea-creature populations have rebounded, while dissolved oxygen – an indicator of pollution like the Juniata’s and Susquehanna’s – has been reduced, the report states.

“It all helps. All the little local efforts,” Marel Raub, Pennsylvania director of the multistate, government-backed Chesapeake Bay Commission, said. “There’s conservation happening all over Pennsylvania.”

Locals might simply have to wait, perhaps years or decades, to see the results of their often-expensive efforts. With full compliance slated for 2025, noticeable improvement in the Chesapeake and its Pennsylvania tributaries could take even longer.

“There’s a lag time,” Campbell said. “It’s a slow process, but the bay is going in the right direction.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.