When proposed environmental regulations draw criticism from polluters as too tough and from advocates as not tough enough, it's possible the proverbial "sweet spot" of middle ground has been hit. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's latest plans for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup may be a work in progress, but clearly a measure of progress is involved.

That the Chesapeake Bay could use some tough love is not in dispute. Water quality has suffered terribly as the watershed's population has grown. Aquatic life is greatly diminished, and oxygen-bereft dead zones have expanded. We have dumped far too much pollution into the bay and its tributaries to expect anything else.

What the watershed's half-dozen states and the District of Columbia need is a federal agency willing to hold their collective feet to the fire - and that is, in essence, what the Obama administration is proposing to do. Maryland and others will have to meet pollution targets or face intervention from the federal government.

The process is fairly simple. The EPA will develop estimates of how much pollution - nitrogen and phosphorus being the chief culprits - the bay can handle, how much is going into it now from the various sources, and what each jurisdiction would need to do to meet targets.

It's a process similar to that followed successfully under the Clean Air Act. To meet EPA clean air targets, Maryland had to address automobile emissions, particularly in the Baltimore-Washington area, or the state would have lost federal funding for road construction.

Those states that fail to comply with bay target levels could see a greatly expanded federal regulatory presence. Under legislation pending in Congress, the sanctions could be even stiffer and result in a potential loss of billions of federal dollars.

It's not hard to see why polluters already oppose this nascent effort. Poultry producers and home builders, for example, can wield considerable political clout on the local level - that's a key reason why states have failed to properly control the nutrients that run off building sites and waste-producing chicken farms.

But that would likely change if local governments were forced to meet pollution targets. If taking it easy on poultry means putting the squeeze on other polluters (municipal sewage treatment plants, for instance), their backbones are bound to stiffen.

Critical to this strategy is the legislation introduced by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin in the Senate (and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings in the House) that would strengthen and clarify the federal role in this process and authorize $2 billion in new funding to fight pollution - the proverbial carrot to complement the EPA stick.

Some environmentalists are disappointed that the proposed regulations aren't more specific, that they don't spell out many dates and goals. But it's too early to interpret this as a sign of retreat, particularly after waiting 25 years for a greater federal presence in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.

Still, Marylanders should no more delude themselves into believing that this latest rule-making spells an end to bay pollution than farmers and builders should view it as some kind of regulatory apocalypse. What's important is that between the EPA actions and the Cardin-Cummings bill, the bay cleanup is moving in a new, and somewhat more hopeful, direction.

Readers respond

The Bay's good health is actually very important to jobs - in the fisheries, boating, tourism, transportation and export and import industries. The farmers and the builders share the Bay with workers in these other sectors who depend on the Bay for sustenance, and as such they should put their efforts into obeying the new federal rules, rather than lobbying for laxer standards.

Love the Bay

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