The Clean Power Plan: How It Could Affect Chesapeake Bay Restoration

  Smokestack-air-pollution-odec-iStock_695x352Photo courtesy of iStock.

What happened?
In 2005, despite the significant body of scientific evidence showing a correlation between increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere and increasing global temperatures, EPA refused to develop regulations curbing the emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide from power plants, cars, and trucks.

Because of growing concern over climate change and sea level rise, several states, local governments, and private organizations brought a lawsuit to require EPA to create regulations designed to curb the emission of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons). In 2007, the Supreme Court held that given the clear scientific evidence for human-caused climate change and the potential for adverse human health impacts, EPA had the authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases. Click here to learn more about Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007).

Following the Supreme Court's direction, on August 3, 2015, EPA issued a new regulation under the Clean Air Act called the Clean Power Plan for Existing Power Plants ("The Plan"). 

Several types of power plants (coal, nuclear, gas, oil, hydroelectric) generate electricity for our homes and businesses. The Plan focuses on coal-burning power plants. Several lawsuits have been filed against EPA challenging the Plan. Those lawsuits are still pending. 

Now, President Trump has signaled that he wants to revoke the Plan. That could be attempted in several different ways, but all would require that the public be given notice of and the ability to comment on EPA's change in position. Citizens, states, or industry could later sue the government if they believed the agency's decision was arbitrary, capricious, or illegal.

How could elimination of the Clean Power Plan affect Bay restoration?
The Plan gives states three ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants within their borders. The most effective way would be to make the power plants more efficient in generating electricity; that is, make them burn less fuel to generate the same amount of electricity. Making these plants more fuel efficient or even shutting them down would mean the plants would emit less nitrogen oxides (NOx). Because NOx is a major source of nitrogen pollution to the Bay, implementation of the Power Plan would greatly improve Bay health. (See Bay TMDL, Appendix L and Eshleman, K., et al., "Declining nitrate-N yields in the Upper Potomac River Basin: What is really driving progress under Chesapeake Bay restoration?")

Once EPA decides to act, it is expected to tell the courts considering the Plan that it wants to reevaluate the rule so all litigation should be suspended. Then, it is likely that the agency will issue a new rule either reversing the earlier finding that greenhouse gases from power plants are causing climate change that is harming humans or revising the rule significantly to weaken its impact on coal-fired power plants. If the Trump Administration takes such action, it is expected that some states and private groups will sue EPA. A protracted legal fight is expected. 

CBF's legal and policy teams are monitoring EPA's actions with respect to the Clean Power Plan and will take the appropriate actions if required to preserve the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint and ensure Bay restoration moves forward. 

—Jon A. Mueller, CBF Vice President for Litigation

Click here to learn about what you can do right now to support clean water across our region.


This Week in the Watershed

Mercury pollution is harming the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams. Photo courtesy iStock.

In the climate change "debate," a common refrain from deniers is that the warming we are witnessing is the result of natural variances in the climate cycle, rather than the result of record-level greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Indeed, in many cases of environmental degradation, polluters and maintainers of the status quo refuse to recognize human's contribution to the problems in the natural world. This despite that in many cases (such as climate change), direct, clear, and incontrovertible evidence proves beyond a reasonable degree of certainty a link between man's actions and harm to the environment. 

One example of this that is impacting the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams, is the proliferation of mercury in our air and waters. While mercury occurs naturally in the environment, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, sediments deposited in North American sediment cores since industrialization have mercury concentrations about 3-5 times higher than those found in older sediments. Today, human's primary exposure to mercury is through the consumption of fish. Calls to reduce mercury in our air and water have led the EPA to develop new regulations, particularly on power plants.

A recent study found that these emission controls on out-of-state power plants have greatly improved air quality in Maryland by reducing mercury pollution. While the air quality improved, fish found in Maryland rivers and streams are still contaminated with toxic levels of mercury. It appears that it will take time for the mercury already present in the environment to dissipate.

Despite the clear link between industrialization and mercury levels in our air and water, industry spokesmen still openly question the connection. The spreading of doubt and misinformation might continue, but it's clear that reasonable environmental regulations, such as those found in the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, can make a dramatic difference in the environment—if nature is given enough time to respond.

 This Week in the Watershed: Mercury, Grazing, and Important Fish

  • CBF President Will Baker reflects on the water clarity throughout the Chesapeake Bay. (Huffington Post)
  • A report says islanders in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay could be the first "climate change refugees" in the continental United States. (Associated Press)
  • Emission controls required on out-of-state power plants have greatly improved air quality in Maryland. Unfortunately, Maryland's fish remain contaminated with mercury, as it will take years for the mercury already in the water to dissipate. (Baltimore Sun—MD)
  • A program was started for farmers to teach each other best practices surrounding rotational grazing. With benefits including healthier animals, increased profits, and cleaner waterways, there's a lot to gain. (WSLS—VA)
  • A record-breaking chicken farm proposed in Wicomico is raising eyebrows among environmentalists. (Daily Times—MD)
  • What really is the most important fish in the Chesapeake Bay? One study's answer might surprise you. (Bay Journal)
  • Pennsylvania is facing another obstacle in their fight for clean water—pharmaceuticals. Prescription drugs are finding their way into the rivers and streams with alarming results.  (The Sentinel—PA)

Lend Your Voice for Clean Water!

What's Happening Around the Watershed?

December 12

  • Virginia Beach, VA: With far more requests for speaker's than we have staff or time, CBF relies on its Speaker's Bureau volunteers to handle a variety of speaking opportunities. Whether you are current on the issues and ready to share our message, or just enjoy public speaking and would like to get trained, we welcome your commitment to this important and high-profile program. Join us to learn the facts and skills to share our mission to Save the Bay with local groups and organizations. Click here to register!

January 16-February 6

  • Virginia: Help restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia's rivers by participating in CBF's Grasses for the Masses program. Participants grow wild celery, a type of underwater grass, in their homes for 10-12 weeks. After 10-12 weeks of grow-out, participants will gather to plant their grasses in select local rivers to bolster grass populations and help restore the Bay. Workshops are being held throughout Virginia. Click to find one near you!

—Drew Robinson, CBF's Digital Media Associate

Pennsylvania Legislature Shouldn't Gut Streamside Protections

The following first appeared in the Patriot News.

Stream with strong forested buffers. Photo by Bill Portlock/CBF Staff.

We all count on clean water . . . But, with roughly 19,000 miles of polluted streams and rivers in our Commonwealth, too many of our waters are considered polluted. We all pay the price—lost jobs, human health risks, taxes, and fees to purify drinking water. And right now the Pennsylvania General Assembly and Gov. Corbett have a choice about protecting Pennsylvania's rivers and streams.

One of the most cost-efficient and well-established practices to clean up waterways and to keep them clean is to plant trees along stream banks—what some call forested buffers.

These buffers soak up water, reducing runoff and keeping any pollutants it carries from draining into streams. Their roots hold onto soil, keeping it from washing into and clouding the water. Their canopies lower water temperatures, improving wildlife habitat for fish like the brook trout, which is crucial in many local economies. And their green leaves convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, improving air quality and lowering our health risks from, for example, asthma. Trees are one of nature's best methods to stop pollution and maintain clean rivers and streams.

Pennsylvania has a Blueprint for clean water and as part of that Blueprint set a goal of planting 74,000 acres of forested buffers by 2013. Recently, our state reported that we have achieved only 17 percent of that goal. That leaves us a very long way to go before we realize the benefits of forested stream banks to our rivers and streams.

Why, then, would our elected officials even consider approving a bill that allows land developers to cut down existing streamside buffers along our last remaining pristine streams? It makes no sense at all and should not be done.

This week, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation released a peer-reviewed report detailing the economic benefits of cleaning up local rivers and streams and the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Public News Service featured that report: Putting a Price Tag on the Value of Clean Water to Pennsylvania (October 7, 2014). They said, "A new analysis of the potential financial benefits of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint finds a measurable return, with cleaner water adding about $6 billion a year in value to Pennsylvania's economy."

Pennsylvanian's own Thomas Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of the book "Save Our Land, Save Our Towns," was quoted in that article saying, "How much is something costing you, and how much benefit are you getting back? [CBF's] analysis indicates it's way less expensive to pay attention to Mother Nature and protect the environment, economically, than it is to let it go."

We need to protect our clean streams, as well as restore our polluted ones. It makes sense environmentally as well as, economically. We call on the General Assembly and Gov. Corbett to prevent this bad bill for Pennsylvanians from becoming law. Our waters will be cleaner and our legacy brighter if they do.

—Harry Campbell, CBF's Pennsylvania Executive Director

Tell your PA senator to vote "NO" on the devastating House Bill 1565! It will gut clean water protections across our state! 

The Blueprint Is Like Cash in the Bank

DSC_4731CBF President Will Baker at this morning's press conference: "Today we can confirm what we long advocated: Reducing pollution makes great sense for our health and environment." Photo by Rob Beach/CBF Staff.

This morning, we released our report, The Economic Benefits of Cleaning Up the Chesapeake. The results of the report are breaking new ground in our case for implementing the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint—our best chance for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and streams.

For the first time ever, we can put a dollar figure on the value of implementing the Blueprint. That figure is staggering. When the Blueprint is fully implemented, the added benefits of clean water, clean air, and healthy land will reach $22.5 billion per year. Just as important, the report shows that abandoning the Blueprint now would cost $6 billion annually in natural benefits lost to polluted waters.

Economic Report CoverThese numbers are a conservative estimate that came from rigorous work by CBF's water quality expert, Dr. Beth McGee, and the respected natural resources economist Dr. Spencer Phillips of Key-Log Economics. Together, they reviewed more than 70 previous studies to calculate the economic value of the natural benefits the Bay system provides.

Of the two dozen potential benefits the natural environment provides, the authors looked at the eight benefits most directly related to water quality. These are the ones they evaluated:

  • Climate Stability
  • Food production
  • Protection from flooding
  • Clean water supply
  • Clean air
  • Treatment of waste
  • Recreation
  • Aesthetic value

All tallied, those benefits to the Chesapeake Bay's six states and the District of Columbia are worth more than $107 billion annually. When the Blueprint is fully implemented, that number rises to nearly $130 billion.

The efficacy of the report has been confirmed by expert reviewers from the fields of ecological economics, water resources management, environmental policy, and water quality science. The evidence is absolutely clear: What's good for the Bay is good for the economy—not just in communities on or near the Bay where benefits to boaters and fishermen are obvious. Every state with rivers and streams that drain into the Bay stands to gain substantially from implementing the Blueprint.

Here's how the annual financial benefit of implementing the Blueprint break out by state:

  • Pennsylvania: $6.2 billion
  • Virginia: $8.3 billion
  • Maryland: $4.6 billion 
  • Delaware: $206 million
  • West Virginia: $1.3 billion
  • New York: $1.9 billion

Econ Report Infographic square FINALImplementing the Blueprint is about more than cleaning up the Bay. It's about fixing what's wrong with the way we use our land and water. It's about maintaining forested areas that help filter water, some of which ends up as drinking water in our wells. It's about smarter development, because reducing the amount of pavement and hard surfaces prevents pollution from washing into rivers and streams when it rains. Cleaning the Bay is about using best management practices on farms that minimize the fertilizer and waste running from the land into the water.

We know these things will lead to cleaner water flowing into the Bay, which will allow the return of sea grasses and increase habitat for fish and crabs that live among the grasses. Cleaner water will reduce the low oxygen zones—areas of the Bay where oxygen is so low that most marine life can't survive.
But that's not all it will do. It turns out, the very things that are needed to clean the Bay are going to improve groundwater, air quality, soil health. That in turn improves human health, property value, agricultural productivity, and recreational commerce.

We now have the proof. Implementing the Blueprint improves the economic value of the entire region—from New York to Virginia, from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and the Nation’s capital.

Now it's time to get the job done, make the changes that need to be made to improve water quality in the Bay. We'll all reap the benefits!

—Kimbra Cutlip, CBF's Senior Multimedia Writer

Photo of the Week: One Week Left!

Last year's second-place winner of the "Save the Bay" Photo Contest. Bushes line the beach at Cape Charles, Virginia, and are speckled with hundreds of monarch butterflies. Photo by Dianne Appell.

There's just five days left until the annual "Save the Bay" Photo Contest submission deadline! Have you submitted your photos yet? From Pennsylvania to Virginia, from the Shenandoah Mountains to the Eastern Shore, we want to see your vision of the Bay and its rivers and streams. Submit your photos today, and you can win not only bragging rights, but cash prizes!

—Emmy Nicklin

The Book that Started it All

 SilentSpring"Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song. This sudden silencing of the song of birds, this obliteration of the color and beauty and interest they lend to our world have come about swiftly, insidiously, and unnoticed by those whose communities are as yet unaffected." —Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Fifty years ago today, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring—the book that many credit for launching the modern environmental movement—was published. 

In it, Carson investigates the damage that the fast-growing use of DDT to control insects had inflicted on birds and other wildlife, and eventually humans.

Despite the initial uproar after the book's release, Carson ultimately changed the way people look at the natural world. "Her message that humans cannot totally control nature, or eradicate species we don' t like—at least not without harmful side effects—came through clearly. She advocated integrated management: using a minimum of chemicals combined with biological and cultural controls," says the PBS website.

The year after Silent Spring came out, President Kennedy directed his Science Advisory Committee to investigate Carson's claims. Its investigation vindicated Carson's work and led to an immediate strengthening of chemical pesticide regulations.

Seven years later, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency with one of its first tasks being to ban the use of DDT and other harmful pesticides.

Carson died of cancer two years after Silent Spring was published, at age 56. On the plaque by the sea where her ashes were spread read the words, "Rachel Carson (1907-1964), Writer, Ecologist, Champion of the Natural World, Here at last returned to the sea," along with a quote from one of her last letters: "But most of all I shall remember the monarchs."

Carson's foresight and courage to speak out about human activities that destroy our natural world and the necessity that we all need to be good stewards of the Earth, led to tremendous strides in the environmental community.

Here at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, we are now facing an historic, unprecedented opportunity to really truly save the Bay through the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint. Perhaps we would never have gotten here were it not for the heroic efforts of individuals like Carson. 

"We stand now where two roads diverge," said Carson. "But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one 'less traveled by'—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth."

—Emmy Nicklin


Yellow-crowned Night-Heron’s Urban Nesting Attitude


For blog 2
A mature Yellow-crowned night-heron along the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg. Photo by Kelly O’Neill.

This past spring I received an early morning text from a co-worker alerting me that she had spotted a Yellow-Crown Night-Heron nesting in downtown Harrisburg. I texted her back saying she must need more coffee because there was no way a Yellow-crowned would be nesting downtown. It’s an endangered species!

Skeptical but hopeful, I met her on my way to the office. There we were, binocs looking nearly straight up into the sky, standing in the middle of a street—gazing eye-to-eye with a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron sitting on her nest.

I "ate crow" that day.

But to my credit, the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron is not an everyday sighting. In fact, it is listed as an endangered species in Pennsylvania and is often considered one of the state’s rarest nesting birds. But as it turns out, this "urban nesting attitude" seems to be rather common for the Yellow-crowned, which has been known to breed along waterways in Cumberland, Dauphin, and York Counties.

My co-worker, Kelly O’Neill, CBF's Pennsylvania Agricultural Specialist, has been keeping an eye on this and several other local heron families ever since. O'Neill, an avid photographer, has catalogued (from a safe and respectful distance) a myriad of their spring- and summer-time activities.

O'Neill shares, “I’m thrilled to witness these beautiful birds. I hope that communities along the Susquehanna River will take seriously the need to reduce pollution so that the herons and all wildlife can thrive here.”

As you can imagine, when discussing an endangered or threatened species—sensitivity is paramount. Whether it’s the Bald Eagle or the Heron—disclosing their nest location is discouraged, in order to protect the birds. To that, we called-in the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The PA Game Commission conducts a survey of nesting waterbirds in the state, and works with communities and individuals to foster stewardship and the protection of these herons and their nest sites. 

Doug Gross, PA Game Commission Wildlife Biologist/ Endangered and Non-game Bird Section Supervisor provides this perspective:

“We are very pleased to locate any nests of the very rare Yellow-crowned Night-Heron in Pennsylvania. The few nests found in our state have been associated with urban areas of Southeastern Pennsylvania, especially the Lower Susquehanna River drainage area. In fact, three of our Endangered heron species, including the Black-crowned Night-Heron, the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and the larger and more conspicuous Great Egret, can all be found along the Lower Susquehanna River. 

Each of these species is critically endangered in Pennsylvania, and may serve as indicators of the health of the water quality where they nest and forage. Overall, we have seen an increase in populations of many species associated with higher quality streamsranging from Bald Eagles to Common Mergansers to Belted Kingfishers. Water quality contributes so much to the quality of life for both humans and wildlife, so we appreciate our partners who help protect aquatic habitat and educate the public about the importance of keeping our waters healthy.

Gross adds: “We really appreciate that many Pennsylvanians have adopted herons as their own special wildlife and have cooperated with protecting nest sites. Keeping an eye on our herons is helping us keep an eye on what is important for all of us.”

O'Neill continues to watch the herons as the young hone their fishing skills, and we are thrilled to share some of her photos for all to enjoy. See our album on Facebook for these magnificant images.

—Kelly Donaldson

To learn more about the Yellow-crowned night-heron and how you can help, visit the Pennsylvania Game Commission website.

Photo of the Week: A Day on the Farm

ClagettCollagePhotos and photo collage by Christine Wysocki/CBF Staff.

Just last Thursday, CBF's Communications Department spent a day on Clagett Farm where we learned how important agricultural practices are to the health of the Chesapeake Bay. After Farm Manager Michael Heller took us on a tour via tractor and taught us about the importance of soil quality and how to preserve it as well as showcasing his beautiful grass-fed cattle, Carrie Vaughn, Vegetable Production Manager, put us to work planting sunflowers and tending to various vegetables. We completed the day with a satisfying picking of the farm's strawberries...yum! Clagett's ultimate goal is to use farming methods that are truly sustainable—both economically and environmentally—that prove to be a very good thing not only for the farm, but also for our waters and the Bay. 

—Emmy Nicklin

Check out more of our photos from the farm on Facebook!

Do you have a favorite Bay photo you'd like to submit to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Photo of the Week contest? Send your digital images to CBF's E-Communications Manager, Emmy Nicklin, at enicklin [at sign], along with a brief description of where and when you took the photo, and what the Chesapeake Bay means to you. Please also join our Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Flickr group and post your pics to our Facebook page. We look forward to seeing your photos!

Cheapeake Born: The skinny on the Bay's decline? Our unhealthy appetite for fertilizer, fuel

  PC 0594A pond and its wildlife suffocated with algae. Photo by Thomas McDowell.

For insight as to why we’re having trouble restoring Chesapeake Bay, I’m reading “The Evolution of Obesity” by medical researchers Michael L. Power and Jay Schulkin (Johns Hopkins Press, 2009).

It’s an illuminating look at how we got so fat. It’s epidemic—more than a fifth of the world’s population is overweight or obese.

In the United States, obesity-related health problems are soaring. The standard revolving door has gone from six to eight feet, and hauling our ampler butts costs airlines a quarter billion more in fuel than it used to. The proportion of normal weight Americans is at an all-time low.

But what’s a fat book got to do with the state of Chesapeake Bay? Around the world, coastal waters have gotten fat. “Eutrophic,” or overfertilized is the technical term, from the Greek for well-fed. Dead zones like the bay’s occur in more than 40 regions of the world.

It’s intriguing to compare graphs tracking these declines to graphs in Power’s and Schulkin’s book that track the U.S. upsurge in fatness.

Roughly, human obesity and estuarine dead zones both began to proliferate around the 1970s. Mindful that the body is not an estuary, I won’t put too fine a point on this coincidence.

But today’s “obesogenic” environment, as the book calls it, seems to be a useful lens for connecting human ways and the ways of bays.

‘Obesity’s’ authors marshal medical science and evolutionary biology to show how impressively adapted is the human organism to avoid underweight and starvation.

Our bodies can suppress appetite when food is scarce; also become more efficient at maintaining body mass in lean times; and we’re geared big time to glom onto and make the most of “calorie dense” foods full of fat or sugar.

And why not? For all but the last ticks of the evolutionary clock, calories were hard to come by, and calorie burning—physical exertion—was hard to avoid.

Fat was good for other reasons. Human babies are naturally among the fattest of mammalian species, close behind seal pups. The reason appears to be that fat, with 10 times the energy storage of muscle, fuels development of our big brains, themselves about one-third fat.

And fat, up to a point, helps the body fight off pathogens, which became a problem once humans began living in settled communities, close to one another and to animals.

The authors show that we literally like the feel of fat in our mouths. Sugar, too, has always been our friend, so much that a bird in Africa, the honeyguide, has evolved to follow honey-seeking humans to the beeswax it eats.

The bay also evolved elegantly to do more with less. The watershed for thousands of years was thick with forest, bemucked with beaver ponds and other wetlands, resulting in riverflows that were not just clean, but lean in the nutrients that fuel aquatic food webs.

The Chesapeake thrived fabulously on this diet. Its shallowness, its two-layered flows of freshwater riding atop salt, its structures of filtering shellfish and burrowing worms and clams, its vast grass beds that could absorb and rerelease nutrients—all of this and more enabled the bay to retain and recycle, and recycle again whatever food it could get. Think of it like swishing a tasty drink around in your mouth for a long time, extracting all of the goodness.

Both humans and estuaries in recent decades have entered a world that is nutritionally abundant beyond anything they knew. And though well-adapted to cope with less, neither man nor bay ever needed mechanisms to cope with too much—one reason the authors of “Obesity” are skeptical that drug companies will isolate a magic molecule or gene to limit getting fat.

The appetites that have larded today’s humans have sped up the bay’s eutrophication. A diet rich in meat means extensive, intensive, heavily fertilized and fertilizer-leaky agriculture, a major cause of deadzones worldwide.

Even heartier appetites for fossil fuels have fed the bay far too much fertilizing nitrogen via air pollution.

With so much energy available to work for us now, we humans must make an effort to get the exercise that used to automatically burn fat.

While the bay never literally exercised, its wet and forested watershed used to process nutrients far more vigorously, ‘denitrifying’ them back into the atmosphere, or burying them in sediments. Now they just mainline off pavement into the bay.

Nowadays ‘thin’ is in for humans, as ‘green’ is for the environment. Yet the trends still don’t match the images, and may never unless we comprehend where we came from.

—Tom Horton


The above "Chesapeake Born" column appears monthly in the Bay Journal News Service. Tom Horton covered the Bay for 33 years for The Sun in Baltimore, and is author of six books about the Chesapeake. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.