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NORMAN — The cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay has posed an extraordinary challenge. It has taken decades of effort, cost billions of dollars and required shared sacrifice from setting aside shoreline “buffer” strips to banning phosphate detergents. Now comes word that the fight will not only be against pollution but also against nearly half the country, too.
That’s because the attorneys general from 21 states have joined a lawsuit brought by the American Farm Bureau Federation that seeks to toss out the so-called “pollution diet” or “Total Maximum Daily Load,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-led effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. The 4-year-old campaign has already had a positive impact on the estuary and has raised hopes that real progress is at hand.
We have railed against the Farm Bureau’s legal maneuverings before. Theirs is a misguided and selfish effort to protect farmers against water pollution controls — new standards that might, for instance, hold large poultry companies liable for the harmful runoff that can be traced to the millions of pounds of chicken manure spread on farm fields.
Such accountability is only possible if the EPA has the ability to enforce Clean Water Act standards on states, which nevertheless retain the flexibility to decide how they will achieve specific water quality goals. It is a partnership that protects the broad public interest — making sure the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s six states and the District of Columbia are doing their fair share.
It is shocking, however, to see so many attorneys general attack that effort in what amounts to a declaration of environmental war. How else to describe the decision by the attorneys general of Alabama, Texas, South Carolina and the rest to endorse a lawsuit that, if successful, would so threaten the future of the nation’s largest estuary?
Why interfere with an environmental campaign that is working — and in a cooperative manner at that? Simply put, it’s because they fear the EPA will use the successful Chesapeake Bay program as a model for cleaning up other badly-polluted bodies of water from the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes.
But it’s also likely because there are parts of this country where it’s become politically advantageous to be against whatever the Obama administration’s EPA is for. The Republican Party has so vilified the federal agency that it is simply assumed that every regulation it promulgates is anti-jobs, anti-free market and anti-American — as if countries with lax environmental regulations such as China and Russia posed an opportunity for anything other than cancer clusters.
Even so, let’s all be embarrassed for West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is one of the rogue attorneys general despite his state’s past commitments to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Clearly, Mr. Morrisey ought to spend a bit more time safeguarding his own drinking water supply in the wake of the devastating chemical spill in Charleston last month and less on undermining efforts to reduce water pollution in neighboring states.
The farm bureau has already lost this argument once, having been rejected at the U.S. District Court level last fall. It is likely to lose again on appeal because the arguments against the program — that the science is flawed or that EPA has insufficient regulatory authority — don’t hold water. Manure is manure, and no amount of legal-tussling is going to safeguard a river or stream unless somebody is required to dispose of it properly.
This is a process that, as Judge Sylvia Rambo noted last September when she ruled against the farm bureau, can be “messy and cumbersome.” But here’s something else that’s cumbersome (at least to taxpayers) — passage of a nearly $1 trillion farm bill that provides billions of dollars for the benefit of farmers, including $250 million specifically earmarked for those trying to meet the obligations imposed by the Chesapeake Bay TMDL. You can bet you won’t see similar appeasements offered to developers, manufacturers or sewage plant operators.
So let’s not cry too big a river for the agricultural community either in the bay watershed or in Alabama, Texas or the other states represented by the pro-pollution attorneys general. All that’s being asked is that they be held responsible for their share of the nitrogen, phosphorus, sediments and toxics that are killing fish and shellfish in our waterways. Such accountability ought not only to be allowed in Maryland but ought to be welcomed everywhere else, too.
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