Court upholds EPA in putting Chesapeake Bay on 'pollution diet'

Court backs EPA's authority to order "pollution diet" for Chesapeake Bay.

A federal appeals court upheld Monday the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to order pollution reductions by Maryland and all the other states that drain into the Chesapeake Bay.

In a 60-page ruling, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia brushed aside challenges from agricultural and home building groups to the "pollution diet" that EPA imposed for the bay in 2010.

"Congress made a judgment in the Clean Water Act that the states and the EPA could, working together, best allocate the benefits and burdens of lowering pollution," Judge Thomas L. Ambro wrote for the three-judge panel that heard the appeal.  

The federal agency, acting after more than 25 years of little or no cleanup progress, had set a "total maximum daily load" (TMDL) of nutrients and sediment washing into the Chesapeake from the six bay states and the District of Columbia. EPA set a deadline of 2025 for the states to adopt measures needed to reduce all sources of pollution, or face possible federal sanctions.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Assocation of Home Builders and other groups had sued in 2011 to block the bay pollution plan, claiming that EPA overstepped its legal authority in demanding that the states curb runoff from farms and new development as well as from industry and sewage plants.

Environmental groups and municipal wastewater agencies joined EPA in defending the bay strategy, arguing that if federal regulators could not insist on across-the-board pollution reductions, urban and suburban water and sewer system customers would be left to shoulder the entire cleanup burden.  Agriculture is the leading source of nutrient and sediment pollution, according to the EPA, while storm-water runoff is the only source of pollution still growing.

The appeals court sided with EPA and its supporters, calling the farm bureau's arguments "unpersuasive."

"The Chesapeake Bay TMDL will require sacrifice by many," Ambro concluded, "but that is a consequence of the tremendous effort it will take to restore health to the Bay—to make it once again a part of our 'land of living'.... —a goal our elected representatives have repeatedly endorsed."

 U.S. District Court Judge Sylvia Rambo in Harrisburg, Pa., had upheld EPA's actions, prompting the appeal.  The case drew national attention, as farm groups and others saw potential for EPA to take similar regulatory approaches to water pollution problems in the Mississippi River watershed and elsewhere around the country.

“This is a great day for everyone who cares about clean water and the Chesapeake Bay,” said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, one of the groups that had joined in support of EPA.

“In a case challenging EPA’s Clean Water Act authorities," Baker said, "the Third Circuit Court in Philadelphia has spoken. The court affirmed the same, reasoned decision offered by the lower court in Sept. 2013. 

A spokesman for the American Farm Bureau said the group was still reviewing the decision and would have no comment for now.

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