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Supreme Court asked to hear challenge to Chesapeake Bay pollution "diet"

Supreme Court asked to hear challenge to Chesapeake Bay pollution "diet"
Farm and builder groups ask Supreme Court to hear their challenge to the federal government's role in directing cleanup of pollution fouling the Chesapeake Bay. (Kim Hairston)

The American Farm Bureau and a coalition of agriculture and builder groups asked the Supreme Court Friday to review the federal government's authority to order a cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.

In a petition filed with the high court, the industry groups argue that the Environmental Protection Agency's "blueprint" for restoring the bay "opens the door for a dramatic expansion of federal power" and must be overturned.

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Lower federal courts have twice rejected the groups' challenge of EPA's authority to order pollution reductions in the six-state bay region. But they say they're pursuing the issue because they believe it has national implications.

"It's about whether EPA has the power to override local decisions on what land can be farmed, where homes can be built, and where schools, hospitals, roads and communities can be developed," said Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

"This is nothing less than federal super-zoning authority," Stallman added. "As much as we all support the goal of achieving a healthy Chesapeake Bay, we have to fight this particular process for getting there."

Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker called the groups' appeal to the Supreme Court "both predictable and sad." He said he believed the justices will uphold the lower courts' rulings and refuse to hear the case.

The industry groups' challenge of the federal role in the bay cleanup comes on the heels of a Senate vote earlier this week to revoke an EPA rule meant to protect small streams and wetlands from pollution and development. The industry groups contend both are examples of the Obama administration's regulatory over-reach. Both EPA moves enjoy wide support from environmentalists, however.

In 2010, after more than 25 years of little or no progress cleaning up the bay, the EPA set a "total maximum daily load" or "pollution diet" of nutrients and sediment that would be allowed to wash into the Chesapeake from Maryland and the five other bay states, plus the District of Columbia.

The agency gave the states until 2025 to do everything needed to reduce the pollution causing algae blooms and a fish-suffocating "dead zone" in the bay every summer.

The farm and builder groups promptly filed suit, arguing EPA had overstepped its legal authority by demanding the states curb polluted runoff from farms and new development, in addition to cleaning up discharges from industry and municipal sewage plants.

The industry groups' challenge was rejected in 2013 by a federal judge in Pennsylvania and again earlier this year by the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

Baker said the industry groups need to accept that the EPA cleanup plan "is the best hope for restoring water quality in local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.

"Their continued reluctance in the face of overwhelming public support stands in stark contrast to the efforts of thousands of farmers and homeowners who have taken action, many at their own expense, to move the bay cleanup efforts forward," he added.

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