Recent Progress: Decrease

According to data submitted by Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2018, 84% of the Chesapeake Bay’s tidal segments are partially or fully impaired by toxic contaminants. This is an increase from 2016 when it was reported 81.5% of the Chesapeake Bay’s tidal segments were partially or fully impaired by toxic contaminants. Chesapeake Bay Program partners have set a goal to observe no such impairments. The listings of impaired waters under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act used in this indicator mark a continued increase in the observation of toxic contaminant impairments since 2010. An analysis to determine whether this observed increase is the result of expanded monitoring coverage and enhanced analytical technology or an actual decline in environmental conditions has not been conducted.

Outlook: Off Course

The Toxic Contaminants Policy and Prevention Outcome is off course. Since 2010, each biennial update has seen the number of tidal segments in the Chesapeake Bay that are listed as fully or partially impaired due to toxic contaminant increase, with the number reaching 84% in 2018. Chesapeake Bay Program partners are building off current state programs to implement local Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) to advance the remediation efforts of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in localized areas (e.g., Patapsco River, Anacostia River), as well as making improvements to wastewater treatment plants and increasing implementation of land-based best management practices. Despite these efforts, overall water quality standards and attainment in the Chesapeake Bay and its tidal tributaries, which contributes to waterways being listed as impaired for PCBs and other contaminant-related impairments, continues to decline. In addition to PCBs and mercury which are the leading causes of fish consumption advisories, the Toxic Contaminant Workgroup is interacting with jurisdictions to formulate a coordinated approach in assessing per—and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which have begun to appear in concentrations that are resulting in new fish consumption advisories throughout the watershed.

While chemical contamination is often characterized as a localized problem occurring in “hot spots” or “regions of concern,” pollutants like metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and priority organics exceed water quality criteria in at least part or all of the tidal tributaries that deliver water to the main stem of the Bay. Because toxic contaminants are present in the water column, persist in bottom sediment and build up in the tissue of fish and other organisms through a process known as bioaccumulation—impacting the health of fish and other ecological resources—management actions undertaken through state Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) are necessary to support long-term positive change in this indicator of environmental health.

A technical report shows PCBs and mercury are particularly problematic in the region, and are considered widespread in severity and extent. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and some herbicides are also considered widespread in extent, while dioxins, petroleum hydrocarbons, some chlorinated insecticides and some metals occur locally. Information is insufficient to determine the extent of biogenic hormones, household and personal care products, pharmaceuticals or flame retardants.

Toxic contaminants can harm human health and affect the survival, growth and reproduction of fish and wildlife. Increasing our understanding of toxic contaminants is critical to the drafting of policy and prevention approaches that will reduce their effects on living resources.

Learn About Factors Influencing Progress

Management Strategy

To achieve this outcome, Chesapeake Bay Program partners have committed to:

  • Supporting programs that monitor the occurrence of PCBs;
  • Supporting the development, evaluation and implementation of toxic contaminant Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs);
  • Compiling data for enhanced regulatory programs;
  • Developing guidance document for the control and reduction of PCBs in regulated stormwater and wastewater;
  • Developing guidance for tracking-down PCB sources
  • Coordinating educational workshops to increase public knowledge of the impacts PCBs can have on human health, the risks of consuming contaminated fish and the technologies available for sediment remediation;
  • Coordinating voluntary programs to track current use sources of PCBs and phase out PCB-containing equipment;

  • Improving the information available for reduction strategies.

As part of the Chesapeake Bay Program’s partnership-wide implementation of adaptive management, progress toward this outcome was reviewed and discussed by the Management Board in September of 2022. It will be reviewed and discussed by the Management Board again in August 2024.

Download Management Strategy (.pdf)

Logic & Action Plan

Chesapeake Bay Program partners have committed to taking a series of specific actions that will support the management approaches listed above.

Completed actions from this outcome's Logic & Action Plan include:

  • In 2016, the Chesapeake Stormwater Network completed a study to determine the relative amount of toxic contaminant reduction that might occur across the range of best management practices implemented as part of the nutrient- and sediment-focused Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL). Part One of the study examines how practices meant to control stormwater can remove urban toxic contaminants from the environment, while Part Two examines how the agricultural and wastewater sectors influence antibiotics, biogenic hormones and pesticides.
  • In 2016, the Toxic Contaminants Workgroup completed a story map depicting the extent of jurisdiction-listed waters that are impacted by PCBs. Additional maps that depict the need for, development of and presence of active PCB Total Maximum Daily Loads were built to help partners target activities related to PCB reductions.
  • During 2016, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enforcement personnel conducted four PCB inspections at facilities in the watershed.
  • In 2018, the Chesapeake Bay Program partnership agreed to explore the value and feasibility of forming a PCB Consortium to provide a forum for collaboration and sharing among stakeholders around PCB TMDLs. The Toxic Contaminants Workgroup will lead the evaluation and report its findings to the Management Board in 2019.
  • In 2018, the Toxic Contaminants Workgroup received funding to work with the District Department of Energy and Environment to establish a method for determining the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, in pavement sealant. While some consumer products that contain PAHs have been banned, there is no program that identifies PAH levels in new pavement sealant, although coal-tar based pavement sealant is known to contain PAHs. This work will help contractors and residents make safe and informed consumer choices.

Learn About Logic & Action Plan

Participating Partners

The Water Quality Goal Implementation Team leads the effort to achieve this outcome.

Participating partners include:

  • Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (State of Delaware)
  • Maryland Department of the Environment (State of Maryland)
  • Maryland Department of Natural Resources (State of Maryland)
  • New York Department of Environmental Conservation (State of New York)
  • Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania)
  • Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (Commonwealth of Virginia)
  • West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (State of West Virginia)
  • Department of Energy and Environment (District of Columbia)
  • Chesapeake Bay Commission
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  • U.S. Geological Survey