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PA must do part to stop killing Chesapeake Bay

State Sen. Gene Yaw of Williamsport is correct. The pandemic-induced economic downturn and resulting $5 billion state budget deficit make it highly unlikely Pennsylvania lawmakers will rally now to make right the state’s shameful failure to meet its obligations to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

But that financial crisis must not serve as the final word or be relied upon to again duck the hard work and expense that must occur if Pennsylvania is going to finally correct the role it plays in the Chesapeake Bay.

Yaw said even in good times, it was difficult to make the case for lawmakers to spend state resources on reducing pollution in the bay located 100 or more miles away.

But the recent USA Today Network’s special report, “Killing the Chesapeake,” examining the many ways Pennsylvania fails to protect the Susquehanna River and its tributaries and, by extension, the Chesapeake Bay into which it flows, makes clear that Pennsylvania must take action.

We call on Gov. Tom Wolf and state lawmakers to focus on this challenge and seize opportunities for aid and leadership presented by the new Biden administration. Craft a long-term vision and funding plan, not just for the health of the majestic bay — a national treasure and economic engine — but also to defend the quality of life here in its vital, vast Pennsylvania watershed, where smallmouth bass fishing, kayaking and the hellbender, Pennsylvania’s resident prehistoric salamander, and more, are imperiled, like the bay, by pollution.

Mike Argento of the York Daily Record and a team of reporters from the USA Today Network drawn from Maryland to the headwaters of the Susquehanna in New York chart not just legal and economic considerations, but also the human dimensions of this fraught environmental dilemma.

The bay is not some disconnected body of water separate from Pennsylvanians or their waterways. Nitrogen and phosphorus that run off Pennsylvania farm fields flood the bay and contribute to dead zones that starve bay creatures of oxygen. Pollutant-laden sediment piles up behind Colonial-era mill dams, then washes into virtually every stream in the watershed. Acidic fluids drain from long dormant coal mines, rendering streams that flow to the Susquehanna dead and red. Outdated, inefficient wastewater treatment plants and farm fields fertilized with manure send toxic bacteria into the watershed, which, in turn, delivers 50 percent of the freshwater flowing into the bay.

The state has a legal obligation to clean up its act. The Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees the right to clean water. Moreover, Pennsylvania, along with Maryland, Virginia and other parties, entered into a 2010 settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and agreed to enact individual plans to limit pollution in accordance with the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

Of all the states, Pennsylvania has fallen far short and would have to spend $324 million a year to live up to its obligation. Its performance has been so abysmal that Maryland, the District of Columbia and other bay states have sued the EPA for allowing Pennsylvania, and also New York, to so badly welch on their commitments.

Before the adoption of the blueprint in 2014, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation estimated that the bay contributed $107 billion to the economy. If the plan fails, and fisheries and related businesses suffer, expect an annual decrease of $5.6 billion, instead. If the plan succeeds, Pennsylvania stands to gain $6.2 billion a year from aquaculture and recreation.

The failure to address this problem at scale can be credited in part to a lack of vision. State lawmakers have a terrible habit of diverting funds set aside to restore the environment as if that was not essential work. We can no longer afford that mindset.

Also complicating the effort, the solutions to this vast, multi-dimensional problem are many times hyperlocal, deeply personal and costly. These waterways and the industries that harm them were, and often remain, tied up in our history and livelihoods.

To clean the water, we ask rural landowners to dredge out old dams and restore tributaries’ healthy natural flows. We ask landowners to remediate acid mine drainage. We ask farmers, who might already be struggling, to make costly conservation improvements. To succeed we need to achieve that rare state — common purpose — and pair it with adequate funding for Pennsylvanians on the front lines.

In January 2020, Bay Foundation President Will Baker said if Pennsylvania fails to meet its 2025 goals, “the Chesapeake Bay will never be saved.”

Nevertheless, he told Argento he retains hope. President Joe Biden, a Pennsylvania native and longtime resident of Delaware, comes into office with both an ambitious environmental agenda and an understanding of both the critical importance of the Chesapeake and Pennsylvania’s needs. That could result in federal support for the state’s efforts.

“We can do this,” Baker said. Yes, we can. We must.

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