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Three and a half weeks after an Environmental Protection Agency official’s comments sparked concerns that the Trump administration was backing away from federal commitments to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, another agency official called that a “mischaracterization” and criticized Maryland for threatening legal action against the agency.

In a letter he sent to Sen. Chris Van Hollen, the leader of the EPA region that includes Maryland reaffirmed those earlier comments, saying a Chesapeake cleanup plan is not itself “binding” nor does it “directly regulate” pollution sources.

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But Regional Administrator Cosmo Servidio said EPA would nonetheless “continue to work diligently and professionally with all the jurisdictions and stakeholders engaged in supporting restoration of the Bay.”

Servidio went on to point out that Maryland, which is preparing a lawsuit against EPA and Pennsylvania over that state’s lagging bay cleanup efforts, “has work to do to provide confidence that it can comply with its own responsibilities” to reduce water pollution.

He said such a lawsuit amounted to “abandoning” the long-standing partnership between EPA and the bay watershed states.

“Threatened litigation against EPA will undoubtedly distract from efforts to restore the Bay,” EPA officials said in a press release.

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, responded: “It is encouraging to see the EPA show such enthusiasm for protecting the Chesapeake Bay, and we hope this sense of urgency will be reflected in the administration’s upcoming budget.”

Servidio’s letter, in response to correspondence from Van Hollen’s office signed by more than a dozen other lawmakers, provides the agency’s most extensive comments on its role in the bay cleanup since the EPA official’s comments raised alarm in early January. Since then, EPA has offered statements affirming its commitment to the effort, but denied repeated requests by The Baltimore Sun to interview Servidio or Dana Aunkst, the director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program who made the initial comments.

The Chesapeake cleanup plan and the partnership between EPA, six states and the District of Columbia date to 2010. EPA is viewed as an enforcer of each state’s commitments under that plan, which seeks to drastically reduce the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment flowing into the bay from farms, parking lots and sewage systems by 2025.

Environmentalists and politicians who support the bay cleanup have been on the lookout for any potential change in EPA’s stance because they have seen the agency roll back many environmental protections under President Donald Trump. That includes reversal of rules adopted under former President Barack Obama that extended the reach of federal oversight and enforcement to include small and ephemeral waterways that were not traditionally covered by the federal Clean Water Act.

Amid those changes, the EPA has maintained that it’s committed to what is known as the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, a blueprint laying out the total maximum daily load of various pollutants that the estuary can ecologically withstand.

Van Hollen said the agency’s response to his letter leaves unclear whether EPA will force states to meet the targets in that blueprint. While the agency said its authority over the bay cleanup hasn’t changed, the Maryland Democrat said he still wants to know whether EPA is willing to use it. If not, he said, legal action still may be necessary.

“We see a pattern of the EPA backing away from important pollution reduction responsibilities. That makes it all the more important and necessary to see assurances they are fully committed to enforcing the pollution reduction targets in the bay agreement,” Van Hollen said in an interview. “We just want to know at the end of the day they’re going to do their job.”

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the state needs EPA to step up to its role as an “umpire” in the Chesapeake cleanup.

“Maryland’s environmental programs and permits are strong but we cannot meet our Baywide restoration goals without a timely and necessary intervention in Pennsylvania to reduce pollution flowing into the Bay,” he said in a statement.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation expressed similar concerns, and also questioned EPA’s interpretation of past court rulings on whether the agency can enforce the cleanup blueprint.

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“By taking no action to hold Pennsylvania accountable, EPA has failed to adhere to the commitment to use its existing statutory authorities, abdicating its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act," said Jon Mueller, the foundation’s vice president for litigation, in a statement.

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