In the Chesapeake's defense

Our view: Lawsuit by advocates is reasonable approach if it spurs overdue federal action

November 06, 2008

Last week, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sent a 21-page letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen L. Johnson letting him know that the advocacy group, along with a long list of other supporters, intends to sue the agency for failing to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

More specifically, the foundation asserts, the EPA has not met the requirements of various interstate compacts (the most recent of which was the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement signed eight years ago), the Clean Water Act and other laws intended to restore the nation's largest estuary.

That the goals of Chesapeake 2000 aren't going to be met any time soon is undeniable. One of the key efforts put forth under the agreement was to reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the bay to 175 million pounds per year by 2012. It's now more than 300 million pounds.

It would be one thing if federal authorities had taken some drastic actions in the intervening years to do something about this. But the EPA under President Bush has been a no-show when it comes to leadership. Most recently, the White House can't even bring itself to release money set aside by Congress under the farm bill for conservation programs in the watershed.

Certainly, there's more that local governments could be doing to reduce water pollution as well, but federal participation is most crucial - and the law gives the bay foundation and its fellow plaintiffs, including former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, an opportunity to seek relief through the federal courts.

Ideally, federal authorities will sit down and offer to negotiate before the matter is dragged into court. The EPA could, for instance, agree to move forward with efforts to reduce Midwestern power plant emissions that deposit millions of pounds of nitrogen into the bay each year. At least that, along with releasing farm conservation money, would be a start. It might even prove that agreements such as Chesapeake 2000 are not just a bunch of empty promises made so politicians can claim to be doing something about the problem.

Filing lawsuits against one's government isn't a desirable option, but in recent years it's proved to be the only available option to force a reluctant EPA to do its job. The federal government must be held accountable for past promises. That's just as true for Barack Obama as George W. Bush.

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