How the EPA’s new relaxed pollution standards could impact the Chesapeake Bay

by Martin Csongradi

While the novel coronavirus has shown how quickly changes in human behavior can help the environment, some governmental decisions about oversight during the pandemic could still cause problems for bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay.

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rolled back requirements by companies to meet certain air and water pollution limits. The decision has caused concern as some critics believe it will allow companies to pollute without much correction by the EPA.

Increases in agricultural and industry pollution have been harming the Chesapeake Bay for decades. This estuary, in particular, stands to lose out by the relaxed standards as pollution upstream can lead to public health problems downstream.

Lack of EPA oversight will not only cause these problems to explode but push efforts to save the Bay back by years.

Changes in human behavior have proved positive for the environment

As the coronavirus pandemic swept around the world, humanity stopped moving. Some businesses moved to working from home, restaurants started serving takeout only, and schools were taught online. Social distancing measures meant no social engagements to attend.

As people moved inside, they started to look outdoors. Some animals were seen exploring urban spaces, and the Himalayas were visible from distant towns and cities for the first time. When humanity stopped moving, nature seemed to open back up.

Surface level analysis and preliminary data pointed toward improved pollution numbers because of the pandemic’s social distancing requirements. Major cities like New York, Los Angeles, London, and Seoul have seen decreased air pollution. With reduced travel on land, air, and sea, sound pollution is down, allowing wildlife to fill in the vacuum.

The EPA issues controversial rollbacks

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a memo to change policies and practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. They rolled back requirements by companies to meet certain air and water pollution limits, saying they could petition the EPA for “enforcement discretion.”

According to an article in Roll Call The EPA stated, in regards to the relaxed restrictions, that it was more important that companies “ensure that their pollution control equipment remains up and running and the facilities are operating safely, than to carry out routine sampling and reporting.”

Democratic leaders are concerned that the rollback would act as a waiver for companies to pollute as they please, and that the EPA will not follow up after the pandemic to ensure that any limits exceeded were legitimately due to the coronavirus.

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed is a vital natural resource in the region

The Chesapeake Bay sits at the end of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, an area spanning from central Virginia to upstate New York. Water that drains from these Appalachian towns — such as Harrisburg, Frederick, and Scranton — flows south until it drains to the Chesapeake Bay, and eventually, the Atlantic Ocean.

On its way to the ocean, the rivers of the Watershed make up the drinking water sources for the greater Washington region’s nearly 10 million residents.

The Potomac River, Washington, DC’s primary water source, originates well into West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. Baltimore’s water comes from surface runoff, as well as the Gunpowder River, Susquehanna, and Patapsco rivers which all originate north of Baltimore. The Susquehanna especially pulls water from sources as far up as the Finger Lakes in New York.

Relaxed restrictions on pollution reporting could have short and long-term effects on local water sources

The primary source of pollution in the watershed has been agricultural runoff. The EPA has placed limits on the amount of pollution allowed in the six state region. These restrictions have seen limited successes, but slowed with little enforcement by the Trump administration.

Potentially polluted water can harm regional sources for drinking water. Additionally, the EPA’s coronavirus move signals the Trump Administration’s commitment to industry over environmental needs.

As the pandemic has led restaurants to close their doors, food supply chains have fallen off their gears. Staples like beef, potatoes, milk, and eggs are either not meeting demand or have a massive surplus.

Farms are a huge economic driver for the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, with over a quarter of the land dedicated to agriculture. As demand for meat changes, slaughterhouses will increase production or won’t be able to meet the meat demand. This can lead to pollution backing up the supply chain, as farms will have more waste and animals than normal.

Increase in manure output will lead to more nitrogen and phosphorous saturation, which means larger algae blooms in the Bay. These algae blooms block the underwater environment from the sunlight that makes life sustainable. Bay life, like Maryland blue crabs and oysters, provide a major source of food and business for the Chesapeake Bay area.

Unfortunately, the memo released by the EPA has no definite end date. The regulations are supposedly going to last the duration of the pandemic, but how long that will be is anyone’s guess.

Martin Csongradi is a political science student at Loyola University Maryland, freelance writer, and native of Philadelphia. He writes about transportation, the environment, and policy issues affecting Baltimoreans, Marylanders, and Pennsylvanians.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published June 2, 2020 on Greater Greater Washington.

Visit https://islandpress.org/resilience-matters-download to get your free copy of this e-book.

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Urban Resilience Project

Written by

A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future. www.islandpress.org/URP

Island Press

We elevate voices of change, shine a spotlight on crucial issues, and focus attention on sustainable solutions.

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