Environmentalists assail possible fund cut

Published 12:58 pm Wednesday, March 22, 2017

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Regional environmentalists as well as local leaders are responding to President Donald Trump’s proposed budget that calls for defunding the Chesapeake Bay Program as part of deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency.

On a local level, regulations stemming from decades-long Clean the Bay efforts have led to Isle of Wight County’s stormwater and septic pump-out programs, as well as regulations regarding fertilizer applications by farmers and what trees can be cut down in environmentally sensitive areas.

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Regional environmentalists are alternately shocked and concerned about losing much worked-for gains in Bay health over the past three decades, since the Chesapeake Bay Program was formed in 1983.  {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

 And candidates running for the 64th District seat in the Virginia House of Delegates — as the state is an integral player in the Bay program — voice a mixture of needing to retain the efforts so far to looking at ways to trim regulations rather than flat-out abolishing the program.

Trump’s proposal calls for eliminating federal funding for the program, which includes six states and the District of Columbia, at about $73 million last year. If his proposed budget is passed by Congress, Virginia would lose a portion of that funding that goes to planning, monitoring, cost-sharing programs, grants and technical assistance to localities.  

“This just makes no sense. We are in disbelief … Eliminating the EPA Bay program will slam the door on the Bay’s nascent recovery, a recovery which is still very fragile,” said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Program in a press release last week.

If the Chesapeake Bay Program is eliminated, who will enforce the regulations and programs, said Isle of Wight Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson.

Recently, Isle of Wight was relieved of many of the timelines and requirements concerning stormwater projects due to no longer being under the state’s MS4 (Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System) permit —which stemmed from Clean the Bay efforts.

As a result, the county is proposing a 10 percent reduction in its annual stormwater fee for next year, but doesn’t know if it will stop collecting the fees if the Bay program is eliminated, Robertson said.

Meanwhile, the county continues to do the projects that were required under MS4 because it believes it’s the right thing to do, Robertson said.

Jamie Brunkow with the James River Association said the combined efforts at cleaning up the Bay, which includes its tributaries, such as the James and Pagan rivers, has resulted in a B average “grade” last fall for the first time since the organization began its annual State of the James report.

Brunkow credits much of the improvement to steady decreases in nutrients coming from wastewater treatment plants.

The water quality is far better than it has been, and eliminating the Bay program will disrupt the whole process, Brunkow said.

Ted Henifin, general manager with the Hampton Roads Sanitation District, said his organization does not receive federal or state funding on a regular basis for the work it’s doing for the Chesapeake Bay. 

However, HRSD has invested heavily over the past 10 years to upgrade several of its plants to meet new nutrient discharge limits. The upgrades, paid for with a combination of local and state grants, are to meet requirements imposed by the Chesapeake Bay Program, he said.

Henifin said HRSD has taken advantage of some low interest loans through the Virginia Resources Authority that are tied to federal dollars, but that program appears to be untouched so far.

Baker also expressed concern about strides made in restoring the oyster and crab populations, which have shown increases in recent years.

“There is the very real chance that if this budget were implemented, the Bay will revert to a national disgrace with deteriorating water quality, unhealthy fish and shell fish, and water borne diseases that pose a real threat to human health. Compare that to its current trajectory — a Bay teaming with healthy fish, oysters and crabs; a Bay safe for children to swim in; a national model of a federal/state partnership heralded worldwide,” Baker said.

Last year’s State of the Bay, issued by the Foundation, stated that its combined score of monitored areas was the highest since the report was initiated in 1998.

The blue crab population received a “B,” with the fishery having nearly tripled since 2014, according to the report.

John Bull, commissioner for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which regulates the oyster and crab fishery, declined to comment on Trump’s proposal given the complexity of the issue.

Several local watermen also declined to comment, saying they were not familiar enough with the proposed cuts to speculate on what the program’s demise might mean for their industry.

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science, based in Gloucester, studies coastal and estuarine systems, educates students and citizens and advises policy makers. The Institute, chartered in 1940, receives about 25 percent of its funding from the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Mark Luckenbach, associate dean of research and advisory services.

One area in which VIMS has worked with the EPA and the state is modeling for standards related to Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL. Those levels were passed in 2010 and were known as the “pollution diet.”

“It’s a much bigger impact than just us,” said Luckenbach of Trump’s proposal to cut the Chesapeake Bay Program, adding that the need to reduce pollution does not go away for the state and in the end, it would be the big loser.

Luckenbach is optimistic that those on Capitol Hill don’t think eliminating the Bay program will happen, “but cuts are probably coming for sure,” he said.

Luckenbach said his colleagues plan to get with their members of Congress about the proposed cuts.

“It’s important to get a strong, unified message to Congress about the economic importance of these things.”

Local candidates vying for the 64th seat in the Virginia House of Delegates also weighed in the proposed elimination of the program. In the past, Virginia lawmakers have had a hand in crafting legislation pertaining to the Chesapeake Bay, such as stormwater program requirements.

Rex Alphin is the current chairman of the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors and a farmer in Walters. He is running as a Republican.

Alphin, who calls himself a “common sense conservative,” favors a balanced approach that doesn’t “hamstring” business and agriculture.

There needs to be an effort to not over regulate, but not under regulate either, he said.

Alphin pointed to nutrient management plans devised by farmers to meet target levels of nutrient run-off from fertilizers, as well as employing cover crops to capture nutrients during the off season.

Alphin said the nutrient plan is an “excellent” program because not only does it reduce nutrient run-off, but it saves farmers money by requiring less fertilizer.

However, farmers could become “hamstrung” if regulations got to where farmers could no longer use fertilizer, he said.

Fellow Republican contender, Emily Brewer of Suffolk, is a small business owner.

She said that although many of the regulations hurt small farmers, they need to be reformed rather than abolished.

“Our watermen and tourism industries rely on a clean and healthy Chesapeake Bay. I think the President needs to focus on cutting burdensome over-regulations on small businesses and farmers rather than cutting funding all together,” Brewer said.

Democratic contender and Carrollton resident John Wandling said if the President’s budget is passed and the Chesapeake Bay Program is eliminated, the state needs to step up funding to continue the efforts that have been made, as well as work with the states “upstream,” such as Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland.

“We might be able to shift some funding around, but certainly taxes and fees are going to increase,” he said.

Democrat Rebecca Colaw of Suffolk does not want the federal program eliminated. If the Bay becomes polluted and problems emerge, it will impact all of eastern Virginia in terms of tourism and the seafood industry. If changes are necessary, use a scalpel, not an ax, she said.

“When you slash, you hurt things more than you know,” Colaw said.

Democrat Jerry Cantrell said Trump’s budget is no surprise, as Republicans have been opposed to any program that reduces the profits of large corporations.

Cantrell would fight any effort to eliminate federal and state environmental laws and regulations.

“Such actions as the elimination of the Chesapeake Bay Program would be both a moral failure of our generation and a crime against all future generations. Moreover, once our state’s natural wonders are gone, they can never again be completely restored,” he said. 

The Democratic Party of Virginia made another point last week. The Party called for Trump to forgo his Mar-a-Lago vacations, which have cost taxpayers $10 million in one month.

“At that rate, he will have cost working people more than $100 million by the end of the year simply to fund his vacations. Simply put, if Donald Trump postponed his Florida vacations until September, he could save the Chesapeake Bay,” said Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia.


About the Bay

The Chesapeake Bay watershed runs about 524 miles from Cooperstown, New York to Norfolk, Virginia and includes six states — New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia. The Bay itself is about 200 miles long, stretching from Havre De Grace, Maryland to Virginia Beach, Virginia. The Bay is surprisingly shallow. Its average depth, including all tidal tributaries, is about 21 feet. A person who is six feet tall could wade through more than 700,000 acres of the Bay and never get his or her hat wet. The Chesapeake Bay was the first estuary in the nation targeted for restoration. 

Information courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  {/mprestriction}