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Chesapeake Bay cleanup can’t rely on the unreliable Trump EPA

The EPA's role in enforcing pollution standards is now a subject of debate. Environmental advocates say the regional partnership formed to restore the estuary from man-made harms like this algal bloom on Gwynn’s Island in Virginia won't work without the EPA's involvement.
The EPA's role in enforcing pollution standards is now a subject of debate. Environmental advocates say the regional partnership formed to restore the estuary from man-made harms like this algal bloom on Gwynn’s Island in Virginia won't work without the EPA's involvement. (W. Vogelbein/VIMS/HANDOUT)

Late last week, the director of the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program admitted something that many had long suspected. Speaking at a conference in Annapolis, the EPA’s Dana Aunkst said 2025 pollution goals set out by Maryland and other Chesapeake Bay states are “an aspiration” and not an enforceable deadline. In other words, don’t look to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency if states fail to meet cleanup targets in the years ahead. Environmental groups assailed the statement as a blatant retreat by the Trump administration, and they’re correct.

But it’s also unsurprising. The Trump administration has never been a fan of EPA enforcement of most any kind. And the Chesapeake Bay program is no different. Oh, it’s all very well to brag about clean water or clean air, which even President Donald Trump is prone to do. But it’s quite another to take the far more important step of cracking down on polluters. President Trump is wedded to the conservative orthodoxy of deregulation so the bay program has long been a bad fit. Never mind that the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint (aka the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load) is widely viewed as one of the most effective programs of its kind in the country.

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Here’s the problem. Chesapeake Bay states advocate for clean water, particularly leaders in Maryland and Virginia. But what happens when they fail to meet agreed-upon pollution “diet” goals? This isn’t some theoretical circumstance. Just last month, the EPA confirmed that Pennsylvania and New York are falling short on interim steps toward 2025. For example, Pennsylvania’s plan falls about 25% short of its nitrogen reduction goal. This is no small matter. Excess nitrogen in the water spurs algae blooms that reduce dissolved oxygen levels and create “dead” zones. And Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River is the bay’s single greatest source of freshwater. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that a cleaner Chesapeake starts with a cleaner Susquehanna.

But if EPA decides that the goals are just talk and not legally binding, where does that leave us? Will elected leaders in Harrisburg decide to take tough action like telling farmers to control runoff or regulate animal waste or spending $300 million in tax dollars on pollution abatement if the federal government isn’t threatening to use its Clean Water Act powers to force such behavior? Doubtful. Nothing against Pennsylvanians but it’s just too easy to kick that particular can down the road when your voters don’t live on the waterfront, or dine on steamed crabs or otherwise enjoy the bounties of the Chesapeake Bay. Sure, a cleaner Susquehanna is good for Pennsylvanians, too, but unfettered development and growth and keeping the agribusiness community happy have their constituencies, too.

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Maryland is left especially vulnerable by such an approach. It’s certainly in a better place for curbing excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus than New York and Pennsylvania, but that doesn’t do the state much good if those other jurisdictions (West Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia included) aren’t holding up their end of the deal, and all their pollution flows downstream. Who will perform the role of enforcer if not the EPA? Certainly, it’s helpful to speak out and condemn the action (or inaction), as environmental groups and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman have already done, but further action is needed. It’s time to call the lawyers.

We’ve said it before and we’ll undoubtedly have to say it again: Let’s sue Pennsylvania. If the EPA is not going to enforce the Clean Water Act, it’s up to state and local government and perhaps private organizations to take the matter to court. Last year, Gov. Larry Hogan sent a letter to the EPA calling on the agency to use its oversight powers. Now, it’s time to dispatch Attorney General Brian Frosh to U.S. District Court with something a bit stronger. Oh, and let’s not forget the other states that aren’t ready to meet “blueprint” goals. There should be lawsuits with their names on them, too. That may not make Maryland’s governor especially popular at the next meeting of the National Governors Association (an outfit he currently chairs, incidentally), but it’s what Maryland residents have a right to expect. If the EPA won’t do its job, then it’s up to local officials and advocates to pick up the enforcement mantel and protect the nation’s largest estuary, and Maryland’s most valuable natural asset, from further harm.

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