Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin's proposal to strengthen cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay won the approval Wednesday of the Senate Environment Committee after the Maryland Democrat made concessions to Republican opponents.
Cardin agreed to drop a long-sought goal of environmentalists: writing into law a baywide pollution limit. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce a specific target — which it calls a "pollution diet" for the bay — later this year.
And to address concerns of agricultural interests, the revised proposal would not allow the federal government to impose new restrictions on farmers if the EPA is forced to step in and assume responsibility for a state program that fails to meet its cleanup target.
Despite the latest action, the bill faces long odds. A companion measure, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, has yet to advance in the House, and the Senate calendar is crowded with must-pass measures in an election-shortened year.
Cardin's legislation is designed to encourage the six states in the bay watershed, including Maryland, to meet the federal goal of significantly improving the health of the nation's largest estuary by 2025. Pollution enters the bay mainly as a result of wastewater and runoff from farms, suburbs and cities.
A lobbyist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a leading backer of the measure, said Cardin's proposal is still very strong, even after removal of language on the Total Maximum Daily Load of pollution, or TMDL, that the bay can absorb.
"Senator Cardin succeeded in getting something extraordinarily unusual in this [political] environment" — bipartisan support, said Doug Siglin, federal affairs director for the foundation, which advocates for bay restoration.
The measure would require states to write detailed plans for meeting the 2025 cleanup target and prod them to reduce pollution by threatening a cutoff of federal funds for wastewater projects and imposing strict limits on runoff from new development.
Cardin, an experienced lawmaker, has worked behind the scenes to build support. Opponents contend that his plan would impose a new financial burden on farmers; runoff of fertilizer and animal waste have helped make agriculture the largest source of the bay's nutrient and sediment pollution, according to the EPA.
The Senate committee voted down several amendments by Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, including one that would have given state and federal agriculture officials a bigger say in regulating pollution from farms.
Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma agreed to drop a series of amendments that could have weakened the measure, while saying he's still concerned it could become a "template" for regulating bodies of water beyond the Chesapeake. But the conservative senator praised Cardin, a liberal, for being willing to consider his objections, "even though we come from really different philosophies."
Cardin said his proposal was designed to treat everyone fairly, including farmers and developers, by letting states decide how to meet pollution limits and "not dictate that from Washington."