The Rest of the Story Behind the Bay’s Enormous Dead Zone

by Anne Havemann

September 03, 2014

Monday’s Washington Post article on the massive oxygen-depleted areas in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico promised to uncover how “falter[ing]” “pollution curbs” were contributing to the dead zones. Instead, the article focused almost exclusively on the dead zones themselves, providing nothing on the vital, yet stalled, regulatory solutions.

The article mentioned that fertilizer and manure washed from farms helped form the Chesapeake Bay dead zone, which was the eighth largest since record-keeping began. Yet it failed to mention that state and federal efforts to curb pollution from farms have faltered over and over again.

Strong state regulations are critical to curbing agricultural pollution since federal law does not touch the majority of farms. The Post could have mentioned that right now Maryland Gov. O’Malley is struggling to implement a rule that would limit the use of manure as fertilizer before he leaves office. Many Eastern Shore farmers have over-saturated their fields with phosphorus, one of the nutrients in manure that is contributing to the dead zone. Last year Gov. O’Malley caved to the Farm Bureau when he twice withdrew the proposed phosphorus management tool (PMT). The legislature then compounded matters by forbidding any new phosphorus regulations until further study. That study is due out any day.

Or the Post could have reported on the fact that Pennsylvania has fallen so far behind in reducing pollution from the agricultural sector that it will not meet the federally required Chesapeake Bay pollution diet. In an extraordinary effort to get the state back on track, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this summer dramatically increased its oversight of Pennsylvania’s farms.

The article could also have covered the federal government’s failure to effectively regulate the farms under its jurisdiction. The EPA has oversight of large animal farms, known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are heavily clustered in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Yet loopholes in the law mean that fewer than 60 percent of CAFOs nationwide are required to obtain permits. The EPA was considering updating its CAFO rule to expand the scope of coverage but abandoned the effort last year.

The EPA couldn’t even bring itself to promulgate a rule that required CAFOs to report basic information directly to the agency (right now, CAFOs only report to the states). Despite “not hav[ing] the information it needs to effectively regulate . . . CAFOs,” according to the Government Accountability Office, the agency withdrew the proposal in 2012.

The article also blamed pollution from cities and suburbs for the Chesapeake’s Connecticut-sized dead zone. Yet it failed to mention that in an EPA review of state plans to meet the federal pollution diet, only Delaware’s stormwater regulations were deemed sufficient. Nor did it mention that the EPA itself is in breach of a court-mandated deadline to clean up pollution that runs off from paved cities and suburbs during storms. The agency has now missed six deadlines to implement a stormwater rule.

The Post attributed the dead zone to heavy rainfall and climatic variations, which, as global warming advances, are issues that will not go away. But what are coal-reliant Bay watershed states like West Virginia doing to mitigate climate change? The article did not even begin to answer the question.

There’s nothing wrong with covering a larger-than-usual dead zone, but the Post failed its readers by not also focusing on the faltering political will at the state and federal level.

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Anne Havemann, J.D., is a former CPR Policy Analyst. She joined the organization in 2013 to work on its Chesapeake Bay program area, and left in 2015 to join the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

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