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House Republicans Advance Bill That Would Derail Chesapeake Cleanup


This month, the U.S. Senate will be considering legislation that threatens to reverse historic progress in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

On July 19, the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives voted 213 to 202 – largely along partisan lines – to pass a budget amendment that would prohibit the federal Environmental Protection Agency from penalizing states that fail to meet pollution limits for the bay imposed by EPA in 2010.

The lead sponsor was Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, an ally of the farm lobby, which went to court to contest the federal Bay pollution limits.

“The EPA cannot be allowed to railroad the states and micromanage the process,” Goodlatte said. “With this amendment, we are simply telling the EPA the important role that states play in implementing the Clean Water Act and preventing another federal power grab.”

What Goodlatte did not mention is that two previous state-led Chesapeake Bay cleanup plans, in 1987 and 2000, failed to make any progress in improving the bay’s health. 

Data from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science show that it was only after federal government asserted a more active role by imposing pollution limits in 2010 that water clarity in the bay improved and underwater grasses – a key indicator of bay health – spread to the largest extent since monitoring began in the 1980s.

The question now is whether the US Senate will accept or reject the House’s bill to strip EPA of its enforcement power.  A reckoning over the issue is expected this month in a budget negotiating session, called a conference committee.

Here’s Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

“I am confident that we will strip out the Goodlatte amendment in the conference committee,” Van Hollen said. “In other words, the Senate Interior Appropriations bill, which came out of the appropriations committee – which I serve on – does not include this provision to take away EPA’s enforcement authority.  And when we go to conference with the House, we will insist on removing the Goodlatte amendment.”

Although Van Hollen is a Democrat, and both the Senate and House are run by Republican majorities, Van Hollen said he would deploy the senate’s unique filibuster rules – which require a 60 percent majority to overcome -- to protect the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

EPA recently released an analysis that showed that while the Bay is making some progress, the regional states – especially Pennsylvania and New York, but also Maryland – need to step up their efforts substantially if the region is to meet the goals of a regional bay cleanup by the target date of 2025.

While sewage plant upgrades have been working to improve water quality in Maryland, DC and Virginia, in Baltimore – in particular – improvements have been behind schedule.  And all the regional states need to do more to reduce nitrogen runoff pollution from farms and suburban areas.

Evan Issacson is Chesapeake Bay policy analyst for the Center for Progressive Reform. He said that EPA’s enforcement of bay pollution limits, imposed in 2010 and now threatened by Congressional Republicans, are the key to making all the states work together.

“You absolutely have to keep the Chesapeake Bay restoration plan in place,” said Isaacson. “That’s the bare minimum.  And we need to move beyond that and have the state leaders actually step up and commit additional resources to tackling some of these more challenging source of pollution.” 

In other words, with lots of work still ahead in the bay cleanup, now is not the time to undermine a system that is finally showing progress.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.