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EPA rejects sewage-treatment recommendations outlined in bay group's lawsuit


Environmental Protection Agency officials said yesterday that they would not adopt the recommendations outlined in a recent lawsuit aiming to protect the Chesapeake Bay from sewage pollution, arguing that the agency is doing enough to combat water-quality problems.

The lawsuit, which the Chesapeake Bay Foundation filed in November, sought to force the Bush administration to place discharge limits on sewage treatment plants, which dump large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus into the bay and its tributaries. The lawsuit contended that the EPA was violating the Clean Water Act by not tying permits to a standard for acceptable discharge.

The foundation's lawsuit hadn't sought a financial settlement; rather, it asked that a federal judge force the agency to respond to a petition it filed last year raising many of the same complaints. Yesterday's announcement was the response.

EPA Assistant Administrator Ben Grumbles said that the foundation asked for a uniform standard that would apply across the watershed, and that the EPA has instead been trying to work with the states to set permit levels that make sense for specific waterways.

"We spent a lot of time going through the legal petition, and our answer is that we think the existing policies that we have, and the recent actions we're taking, offer the best chances of getting to the finish line faster," Grumbles said.

Grumbles said that "top-down regulations" weren't the best approach for the bay watershed, because every water body is different and because the standards had to be attainable to withstand court challenges from industry.

But Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker said a uniform standard for the whole watershed was never the point of the lawsuit.

The foundation, he said, was trying to compel the EPA to have some standard that would tie permits to discharge levels. For years, he said, the research has been clear that nitrogen and phosphorus pollution harms bay life and erodes water quality, and the agency did little to control those pollutants.

"That is a predictable spin to say that we were trying to do something onerous, and they are going to do something reasonable," Baker said. "We weren't trying to get 'one size fits all.' We were trying to get science-based limits in the permits for discharges."

If the agency establishes permit standards by the end of the year, as officials have said it would, then the foundation will consider the litigation a victory. If permit standards aren't set up, Baker predicts, the foundation will go back to court again.

"They have put this so clearly on the record that they're going to do this that I would find it very difficult for them not to. I'm just sorry it's taken so long," he said. "The only loser in this has been the water quality in the bay."

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