Yee Huang on CPRBlog {Bio}
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An Environmentally Disastrous Year

a(broad) perspective

In 2010, natural (and unnatural) environmental disasters around the world killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced millions more, and caused significant air and water pollution as well as human health catastrophes. Insurance giant Swiss Re estimated that these disasters caused an estimated $222 billion in losses. Disasters are overwhelming to begin with, but for countries with limited infrastructure and capacity to respond, these disasters also show that the human rights consequences of an environmental disaster can be severe. Despite the different countries in which these disasters originated, they illustrate a common need for better disaster response and enforcement of laws and regulations to protect the environment.

  • Pakistani Floods. In July, unprecedented monsoon rains led to severe flooding, at one point leaving one-fifth of the country underwater and affecting an estimated 20 million people in the Indus River basin. The floods overwhelmed the country’s infrastructure and led to outbreaks of water-borne diseases, claiming an estimated nearly 2000 lives, including some of the most vulnerable victims, children.
  • Russian Wildfires. In August, more than 800 wildfires ignited the Russian countryside, amidst the worst heat wave in 130 years. The fires and smoke led to severe air pollution, elevating carbon monoxide levels to five times and particulate matter to three times Moscow's acceptable levels.
  • Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. In April, the explosion of the oil-drilling platform Deepwater Horizon led to a gush of oil that continued for three months, spilling an estimated 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. While the full environmental impact of this manmade disaster may not be known for years, it is the largest petroleum spill to date.
  • Hungarian Sludge. In October, more than 200 million gallons of red sludge poured out of the holding reservoir from an aluminum processing plant, flooding three villages with highly polluted water and mud which eventually reached the Danube River. This unnatural environmental disaster brought to light the potential danger from other toxic storage facilities in former Soviet countries, which were once used as heavy industrial sites with little regard for environmental standards.

I note that these are the disasters that made the headlines, while many others—sea level rise in the Marshall Islands, the failure to reach an agreement to protect bluefin tuna, the failure to reach agreement on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol—are equally devastating over time. Here’s hoping that 2011 is a better year.

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EPA's TMDL for the Chesapeake: One Giant Step Toward a Restored Bay

Today EPA released the final Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which is a cap or limit on the total amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment that can enter the Bay from the District of Columbia and the six Bay Watershed states: Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. The Bay TMDL culminates years of cooperation between EPA and these Bay jurisdictions in working toward a new plan to restore the Bay, a vital economic, recreational, and aesthetic resource for this region. This TMDL is the largest and most complex of all such pollutant limits to date, and truly marks the beginning of a new era for Chesapeake Bay restoration. We've seen many plans on paper over the years for Chesapeake restoration, but this one is a much bigger step with a stronger outlook.

Part of today’s release includes EPA’s evaluation of the Bay jurisdictions’ final Phase I Watershed Implementation Plans, which were due on November 29. Throughout this process, EPA has repeatedly emphasized its willingness to let Bay jurisdictions take the lead on restoration efforts, guided by the strategies, plans, and contingent actions described in their Phase I WIPs. The final Bay TMDL and EPA’s evaluation of the plans reflects this willingness, as EPA has established three levels of involvement with Bay jurisdictions:

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EPA to Issue Bay TMDL Wednesday, 12/29

Tomorrow, the Environmental Protection Agency will issue its final Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the Chesapeake Bay, setting a pollution cap for the Bay that is comprised of 92 individual caps for each of the tributary segments that flow into the Bay.  The Bay TMDL represents another important milestone in the long-running effort to clean up the Bay, the largest estuary in North America, and return it to health.  Part of EPA’s release will include its response to the Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) submitted to EPA this fall by the six watershed states and the District of Columbia, which all contribute to nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution in the Bay.  The WIPs set forth the states’ planning to date to implement the pollution-control efforts that the TMDL will demand.

Since the states submitted their plans, a panel of CPR Member Scholars has been evaluating them, and we will shortly release grades for each state’s WIP.  We’re eager to see EPA’s response to the plans, and intend to incorporate into our own report anything from EPA’s release that materially affects the WIPs themselves.

Without scooping our own report, I can say that the WIPs as a whole were still disappointing.  Some plans are better than others, either in terms of the pollution-control programs they sketch out, or in terms of the transparency the states say they intend for their efforts.  But by and large, the states’ plans simply don’t go far enough or commit to enough to demonstrate that they will indeed lead to significant improvement in the water quality of the Bay without additional prompting from EPA.

That makes EPA’s release tomorrow all the more important, and why it’s going to be so very critical that EPA and, for that matter, the public keep the pressure on the states to pursue genuine efforts to clean up the Bay.  Too often in recent years, the efforts have sounded a whole lot more impressive in press releases than they have been on the ground or in the water.  It’s long past time for that to change, and we remain hopeful that EPA is on track to help – or make – the states do just that.

We plan to publish our evaluation of the states’ WIPs in a matter of days, but of course want to take a look at what EPA has to say tomorrow.  Watch this space.

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The 111th Congress and the Chesapeake Bay

The 111th Congress saw two attempts to provide legislative impetus to restore the Chesapeake Bay.  Now that the lame duck session has ended, the results are in:

  • The Chesapeake Clean Water and Ecosystem Protection Act, S. 1816.  Introduced in October 2009 by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the bill would have reiterated EPA’s authority to establish a Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).  This TMDL, which EPA is promulgating on schedule as required by consent decrees and an Executive Order by President Obama, establishes a pollutant diet by looking holistically at all the sources of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment in the entire Bay watershed.  In July 2010, as a result of a compromise with Republican Ranking Member James Inhofe (R-OK), the bill passed the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee with significant changes—namely, establishing as the overarching goal the achievement of water quality standards, as opposed to compliance with the Bay TMDL.  Ultimately, Senator Inhofe and the farm lobby opposed the bill on the Senate floor, and it failed to pass as part of an omnibus public lands and waters legislative package.  The Baltimore Sun reports that Senator Cardin intends to try again in the next Congress but that he acknowledges that the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives “makes it much less likely any legislation will pass boosting the federal government’s regulatory authority.”  CPR scholars Bob Adler, Bill Andreen, Rob Glicksman, and Rena Steinzor wrote Senator Cardin a letter discussing the trade-offs in the compromise with Senator Inhofe.  
  • Federal Payment of Stormwater Fees.  Senator Cardin and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) also proposed legislation to make federal agencies that own property within state or local government jurisdiction pay stormwater fees assessed as a result of that state or local government complying with Clean Water Act mandates to manage water pollution from stormwater.  The refusal of federal agencies to pay these stormwater fees—for example, $1.6 million in King County, Washington, or $2.4 million in Washington, D.C.—has severely crippled the ability of these local governments to upgrade stormwater management facilities and controls.  In the Bay, stormwater accounts for 17 percent of the phosphorus, 11 percent of the nitrogen, and 9 percent of the sediment loads.  Congress passed this stormwater fee measure during the lame duck session, requiring federal agencies to pay their share of stormwater fees. 

Of equal importance for the Bay: this week, EPA will finalize and publish the Bay TMDL.  Stay tuned for updates and analysis.  A panel of CPR water quality experts will also release grades on the final Phase I Watershed Implementation Plans.


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Maryland Submits Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Plan; Here's A First Look

Maryland submitted its final Phase I Watershed Implementation Plan for Chesapeake Bay restoration this afternoon.

It's the strongest blueprint of any of the states, and if implemented and funded sufficiently would allow Maryland to achieve its needed share of pollutant reductions. Maryland has pledged to implement, by 2017, the pollutant controls necessary to achieve 70% of its needed reductions, and to an accelerated timeline by implementing all necessary pollutant controls by 2020.

The plan has the most promise of any of the state plans of meeting its targets because it identifies specific strategies for reducing pollution, provides detailed cost estimates for implementing the plan, and provides strategies for pursuing the necessary funding. Now that Maryland has identified how much funding is needed for its pollution reduction strategies, the challenge will be acquiring that funding and maintaining the political will to implement the plan.

Maryland's plan is a considerable improvement from the draft plan because it fills in missing details on specific pollutant reduction strategies, cost estimates, and timelines.

A couple more observations for now:

  • Through the existing BayStat tracking program, Maryland has committed to assessing the effectiveness of primary pollutant controls and committed to some timelines for implementing contingencies.
  • The plan provides detailed information on rates of inspection for implementation of best management practices on nonpoint source lands to reduce Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and sediment runoff.
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Double Duty: Will the Montreal Protocol Some Day be Used to Combat Climate Change?

a(broad) perspective

In 1974, atmospheric scientists discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were causing the alarming depletion of the protective ozone layer that shields all life on Earth from the harmful ultra-violet radiation from the sun. These CFCs were present as propellants in aerosol cans and also used as refrigerants. The global scientific consensus and the severity of ozone depletion motivated the international community to establish the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (Montreal Protocol), one of the most successful international environmental treaties to date. The Protocol established specific targets for the reduction and eventual elimination of ozone-depleting substances. The Protocol’s success comes from the scientific expertise on ozone-depleting substances and universal participation. Developed countries also provide significant technical and financial assistance to developing countries, which encourages and enables them to reduce their dependence on these compounds.

EPA estimates that in the United States alone, every dollar invested in ozone protection yields $20 in societal health benefits. Between 1990 and 2165, that would amount to benefits of approximately $4.2 trillion, the agency says.

The Montreal Protocol made headlines with the 22nd Meeting of the Parties in Bangkok earlier this month. The United States, Canada, and Mexico proposed the use of the Protocol to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which contribute to climate change. Daniel Reifsnyder, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment and Development, noted that “the global community cares not where action on climate change is taken: only that it is taken.”

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Most Chesapeake Bay Watershed States Submit Cleanup Plans; A First Look at Virginia's

Yesterday was the deadline for Bay states and the District of Columbia to submit their final Phase I Watershed Implementation Plans (WIP). These WIPs are roadmaps that describe how Bay jurisdictions will meet their pollutant reduction obligations under the Bay TMDL. Delaware, the District of Columbia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia submitted their plans by the deadline, while Maryland expects to submit in the coming days. New York, which has taken a position essentially in opposition to the Bay TMDL, has not said when it plans to submit its WIP. 

As the plans are made public, CPR will evaluate the plans based on metrics that we developed, and publish a report card. In the meantime, we’ll provide a look at some of the highlights and lowlights in the plans. Today, Virginia:

  • Significant improvement, but still lacking specific funding commitments. Virginia’s final WIP is a significant improvement from its draft WIP because it provides more concrete details regarding Chesapeake Bay-specific pollution reduction programs. However, it still does not provide estimates of resources needed and resources available to implement its programs. Without funding estimates, Virginia’s plan may never get off the ground. 
  • Increased detail on nutrient trading program. The draft WIP focused heavily on nutrient trading to allow sources to meet their allocations, but failed to provide detail on how trading would be monitored for effectiveness. The final WIP still relies on trading and provides a specific timeline for the introduction of legislation to expand the program. It also provides concrete examples of how trades would work and what reductions are available for trading. CPR has previously raised concerns about the effectiveness of trading.
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CPR Submits Comments to States on Chesapeake Bay Restoration Plans

Today CPR President Rena Steinzor and I submitted comments to EPA and each Chesapeake Bay Watershed jurisdiction regarding their draft Phase I Watershed Implementation Plans. The states, we find, need to improve their plans significantly.

After more than 20 years of haplessly stumbling toward restoration, often in fits and starts, EPA and the Bay jurisdictions—Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia—have finally agreed on a final destination: the Bay TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load). Achieving the pollutant allocations in the Bay TMDL will make the Bay once again healthy enough to sustain oyster and blue crab populations and the local economies that depend on them, provide nursery habitat in its grasses, and allow safe recreation for the millions of people who live and work in the Bay Watershed. Establishing the destination goes hand-in-hand with determining the route, which is where the WIPs come into play. The WIPs should represent a clear, defined roadmap and itinerary—with mile-markers, gas stops, and scenic overlooks—to demonstrate how the Bay jurisdictions will achieve their pollutant allocations under the Bay TMDL. Instead, the draft WIPs the Chesapeake Bay jurisdictions submitted in September list, in essence, only the means of transportation—By Rollerblades! By trains! By SUV!—and a list of sights along the way, without committing to any specific route.

In August, we developed a set of metrics by which to grade the WIPs, setting out what we see as necessary characteristics to make the plans successful (we'll be releasing evaluations on the final WIPs, which are due November 29th). The metrics focus on two broad categories: (1) the transparency of information in the WIPs in providing key information about mandatory and voluntary pollutant control programs and (2) the strength of these programs in making actual pollutant reductions. Overall, the Bay jurisdictions’ draft Phase I WIPs do not provide an adequately clear or defined roadmap to achieving the Bay TMDL. The draft WIPs tend to list with varying degrees of specificity the state programs related to achieving the Bay TMDL without explicitly committing to strengthening existing programs or implementing new actions to make actual pollutant reductions. The extent to which states disclosed information for the transparency of information evaluation necessarily determines the ability to evaluate the strength of the programs.

Some highlights and lowlights from the submissions:

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Moving Along: Preserving the Great Wildlife Migrations

On November 7, the National Geographic Channel is premiering Great Migrations, a seven-episode series that chronicles the movements of animals on every continent, from the magnificent monarch butterfly migration from Mexico to northern Canada to the impressive wildebeest migration across the plains of the Serengeti.

A report by the United Nations concluded that climate change will impact population sizes, species distribution, the timing of reproduction and migration events, and the increased vulnerability to disease and predation. Compounding these effects are additional human-induced changes to the natural environment, including habitat degradation and destruction, water and air pollution, and the spread of invasive species. Of all the organisms on the planet, migratory species are among the most affected by climate change, which has the potential to affect each step of their life cycle.  A Kenyan newspaper recently reported that this year’s wildebeest migration was abruptly shortened, possibly due to the serious drought in Tanzania last year.

Because so many migratory species cross international boundaries, the United Nations recognized the importance of conserving the habitat in each range state through which animals migrate. On June 23, 1979, member states of the United Nations concluded and adopted the Convention of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), also known as the Bonn Convention. It embraces the idea that wild animals constitute a common natural heritage of humankind and should be protected for present and future generations. Currently 114 states are party to the Convention, with an additional 34 states—including the United States—that participate in agreements developed under the Convention framework.

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A Frank Assessment: EPA Finds Illinois' CAFO Program Inadequate

The EPA Region 5 recently published a refreshingly blunt report on the state of concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) permitting in Illinois, and the assessment is disturbing. EPA concluded that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting program for CAFOs “does not meet minimum thresholds for an adequate program.” Ouch.

As in many other states around the country, agriculture in Illinois is one of the state’s leading economic drivers and one of the leading sources of water pollution. The state has the fourth largest concentration of large-scale hog confinements in the United States, producing 4.5 million hogs each year. This massive hog production, highly concentrated in CAFOs, comes at a significant environmental cost. According to the state’s 2004 Water Quality Report, more than 85% of Illinois’ public lake acreage is impaired, largely attributable to agriculture. Moreover, the agriculture industry is responsible for 73% of Illinois’ river and stream impairments.

As a result, environmental groups filed a petition in 2008 to request that EPA withdraw Illinois EPA’s delegated authority to administer the CAFO permitting program. Under the Clean Water Act, EPA may delegate authority to states to administer the NPDES permitting program, but that authority may also be withdrawn under certain statutory conditions. For example, EPA can withdraw delegated authority when a state agency is no longer acting sufficiently to administer the program in compliance with federal requirements, such as failing to issue NPDES permits, to act on violations, or to seek adequate enforcement penalties or collect adequate administrative fines.

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