The bay 'diet' draws fire

Our view: Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort has a rare chance at success — if Congress allows EPA to do its job

March 17, 2011

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's effort to put Chesapeake Bay states on a "pollution diet" represents the most hopeful effort toward cleaning up the estuary in a generation. So why are House Republicans so invested in sabotaging it?

That the GOP would like to thwart the EPA on any number of fronts is clear enough. The House attempted to block funding of the EPA's Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) restrictions on nutrients and sediment earlier this year, and only opposition from the Senate has prevented a general evisceration of the agency's budget.

But the contempt for pollution-control efforts was back on full display this week as a House agriculture subcommittee held a hearing to allow the region's farmers to vent their frustration with proposed pollution controls. The committee directed much of its ire at EPA Deputy Administrator Robert Perciasepe for his agency "overstepping its authority" and pointedly suggested that any bay cleanup efforts be left to states.

Leaving the matter to states in the sprawling 64,000-square-mile watershed is, of course, precisely how the Chesapeake Bay got into its predicament in the first place. And as Mr. Perciasepe accurately pointed out, the EPA is merely using its Clean Water Act authority to ensure states take the needed regulatory steps themselves.

This much is clear, House Republicans care not a bent farthing about the health or future of the Chesapeake Bay. If they did, they'd have noticed that the states involved actually support what the EPA is doing (with some quibbling over the details). Why? Without that third-party involvement, states would be willing to do much less — too many politically unpopular choices have to be made.

Farmers are the perfect case in point. No group of polluters has been treated more gently over the years. In most instances, they are either asked to curb their runoff on a voluntary basis or given financial incentives to clean up their acts, or both.

Without the EPA holding the states' feet to the fire, do you really think that the local governments involved — even those in Maryland and Virginia, which have the most to gain from a restored Chesapeake Bay — would impose more stringent standards on agriculture, or any other polluter with political clout? Not likely.

In a lawsuit filed earlier this year, the American Farm Bureau claimed that the EPA program uses flawed science, that it isn't authorized by the Clean Water Act and that the public wasn't given sufficient voice in the process. All untrue. But you couldn't tell that at the hearing, where there was absolutely no interest in exploring how 30 years of cleanup efforts have come up short. Not a single environmentalist was invited to testify.

Instead, the subcommittee issued a news release after its carefully choreographed dog and pony show, calling the regulations "onerous." One can just imagine how disgusted Maryland's late Republican U.S. Sen. Charles "Mac" Mathias Jr., a longtime advocate for the Chesapeake Bay, would have been at such wanton disregard for the environment by members of his party.

What a tragedy if so promising an effort is abandoned now. As officials tried to point out at the hearing, the tools are in place to lower pollution in the bay and its tributaries in a truly meaningful way. There are no guarantees the opportunity will ever come again.

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