A bill to fund the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal programs from December through September 2018 would strip the agency of its power to enforce a Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, under a provision approved in the House of Representatives.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican who represents western Virginia, introduced an amendment to stop what he called EPA's efforts to "railroad" and "micromanage" state-by-state work to reduce bay pollution. The House adopted the measure Friday, 214-197.
"Congress intended that the implementation of the Clean Water Act be a collaborative approach through which the states and the federal government work together," Goodlatte said on the House floor Thursday. "This process was not meant to be subject to the whims of politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C."
The EPA imposed a pollution "diet" for the Chesapeake in 2010, requiring states to adopt policies that reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that wash into the bay. Bay advocates credit the plan with recent improvements in bay health and say its key strength is the federal authority that can hold states to their part.
Goodlatte said that power allows the EPA to "hijack states' water quality strategies."
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation said stripping the EPA of the authority would threaten the viability of an agreement that was reached by consensus and is working.
Kim Coble, the foundation's vice president for environmental protection and restoration, said "only EPA has the ability to enforce the agreement in the event that a state fails to meet its commitments."
The amendment was attached to a proposed spending bill to fund the EPA and the Department of the Interior for the bulk of the fiscal year that begins in October. A final decision on how Congress will fund those agencies next year is months off, and the Senate will have a chance to weigh in on the final legislation.
Thirteen Republicans joined most Democrats in opposing the amendment. One of the Republican "no" votes was Rep. Andy Harris, the Baltimore County lawmaker whose 1st Congressional District includes the Eastern Shore.
All of Maryland's congressmen — except Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who has been absent from Congress as he recovers from heart surgery — voted against the amendment. Seven of Goodlatte's 10 colleagues in Virginia's congressional delegation, both Republicans and Democrats, also voted against it.
The underlying bill is separate from a stopgap funding bill Congress approved Friday that will keep the government running into December — part of a larger deal Congress struck with President Donald J. Trump last week to raise the nation's debt ceiling and provide emergency spending for efforts to recover from Hurricane Harvey.
Recent report cards assessing the Chesapeake's health show booming acreage of underwater grasses, improved oxygen levels and rebounding populations of crabs and oysters. Still, most measures still fall short of goals for what is considered a restored estuary.
The EPA plan requires states to reduce the amount of pollutants washing into waterways from sewage treatment plants, septic systems, farmland and urban pavement. Strategies Maryland has adopted to achieve those goals include improving sewage-processing technology, requiring farmers to reduce fertilizer use on fields already saturated with phosphorus, and installing vegetated buffers around paved areas to reduce stormwater runoff.
Coble said the foundation will be working with senators from the six watershed states to ensure the amendment isn't included in the upper chamber's appropriations legislation.
Goodlatte argued the legislation will give states more flexibility in achieving bay cleanup goals.
He said the measure is in line with a Trump administration move to rescind an EPA rule established under President Barack Obama in 2015 that expands the definition of what bodies of water fall under federal oversight. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced a proposal this summer to repeal that expanded definition.
"The bay is a national treasure and I want to see it restored," he said. "In order the achieve this goal, the states and the EPA must work together."