The top legal officials of 20 far-away states (plus nearby West Virginia) have acted in federal court to try to disrupt our region’s efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
Why, you may rightly ask, do the attorneys general of Kansas, Florida and even Alaska care what Maryland, Virginia and the District do to protect our area’s most precious natural resource?
They’re scared it might set a dangerous precedent that would eventually oblige them to reduce pollution in the Mississippi River, Everglades or other American waterways.
The officials, including 18 Republicans and three Democrats, typically favor states’ rights and local control.
But that didn’t stop them from filing a joint brief supporting a landmark lawsuit by the farm lobby and other interest groups to block a project hundreds or thousands of miles away.
The suit, now before a U.S. appeals court in Philadelphia, aims to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from implementing rules supported by our region to finish a bay cleanup effort begun more than 30 years ago.
“It’s pretty audacious — it is really not something that they should have the right to tell us what to do,” said Robert Percival, director of the environmental law program at the University of Maryland law school.
“The bay states are committed to cleaning up the Chesapeake, and [the EPA program] is the most important legal tool for doing so now,” he said.
Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the District filed briefs supporting the EPA. An important hearing in the case is scheduled for July.
Of course, the plan’s opponents all insist that they want to save the Chesapeake. They just don’t want the EPA to set a deadline or say how it’s done.
Unfortunately, that kind of toothless approach has repeatedly sabotaged plans to cut contaminants that have created “dead zones” in the bay.
Our region formally agreed on a voluntary “pollution diet” to clean up the Chesapeake by 2000. It didn’t work.
We gave ourselves another decade, aiming to make the bay sustainable by 2010. We made progress but came up short again.
That’s when states in our area, the Obama administration and environmentalist groups reached a deal extending the deadline to 2025. In a crucial change, the EPA set a timeline with mandatory, numerical targets for reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment flowing into the bay.
The switch displeased the farm, fertilizer and home building lobbies, who sued to block it. They said the EPA had to grant more flexibility to account for economic and social costs.
Ellen Steen, general counsel for the American Farm Bureau Federation, warned of severe consequences if the EPA and our region triumph.
“The legal issue that’s at stake has the potential to affect not just the Chesapeake Bay, but any area nationwide where there are water quality issues,” Steen said.
“Nobody knows how many farmers are going to leave the [Chesapeake] watershed because it is not economic to continue farming,” she said. “There may be people who don’t care that 50 percent of local farmers go out of business.”
Maryland Environment Secretary Robert Summers dismissed such concerns. The state’s farmers still have more to do, he said, but they have been “leaders in the world” in reducing pollution while continuing to prosper.
“The farming community is doing better than ever,” Summers said. “With the ‘buy local’ movement, we’re seeing a lot of agriculture in areas where we didn’t have it before.”
Admittedly, clean water is expensive. Maryland estimates it will cost $14 billion by 2025 to cut bay pollution as required from all sources including agriculture, sewage, storm runoff and septic tanks.
Fees have already been increased to pay much of the cost, and the state picks up many of farmers’ expenses. Summers said it is a question of priorities.
“I Googled the cost of an aircraft carrier — it’s about $13.5 billion,” Summers said. “For one aircraft carrier, we could clean up Maryland’s portion of the bay.”
So far, the bay’s defenders are winning in court. U.S. District Court Judge Sylvia Rambo ruled decisively in favor of the EPA in September. The farm bureau and its friends hope to overturn her decision on appeal.
Meanwhile, some of the meddlesome attorneys general are facing some pushback.
In Florida on Tuesday, 50 environmentalist groups and allies wrote Attorney General Pam Bondi (R) saying they were “confounded and outraged” by her opposition to the Chesapeake Bay plan.
The letter said the bay project “should be used as a map for other states rather than be attacked because it might actually accomplish what it proposes to do.”
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.