The headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is located on Pennsylvania Avenue just blocks from the White House and a pleasant midday stroll to the Potomac River, the second largest tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. Michael S. Regan ought to go check out the view. The EPA’s new administrator, handily confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday by a 66-34 vote, could scarcely find a better first-year project to tackle than cleaning up the nation’s largest estuary.
Rarely has there been an environmental project so ripe for federal involvement, and it poses an opportunity for President Joe Biden to demonstrate to all Americans the benefits of regulatory intervention in protecting public health and this country’s natural heritage. It also touches on a wide swath of issues from climate change and rising sea levels to runoff from farm fields and city streets, smart growth and clean drinking water. It has bipartisan support and broad public appeal. What better example to set for skeptical red state communities than to show how the EPA can get things done in jurisdictions open to environmental protection? It’s not unlike Texans learning belatedly of the need to regulate the utility grid against severe winter storms. Your average waterman is politically conservative about a great many things but when it comes to keeping sewage discharges out of waters shared by oysters, crabs and rockfish he’s about as green as any vegan activist that ever marched for animal rights.
As it happens, Mr. Regan was asked briefly about the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program during his confirmation hearing; he made some supportive comments and even allowed that he’s likely to appoint a “czar” to oversee cleanup efforts. What he failed to demonstrate is a willingness to get tough on polluters, which is exactly what the Chesapeake Bay needs right now. It’s clear enough what the problems are. There’s no shortage of studies. What’s often lacking is a willingness to make the sacrifices needed to reduce pollution, chiefly excess nitrogen and phosphorous that ultimately robs the bay and its tributaries of precious dissolved oxygen. Indeed, the biggest vulnerability can be summarized in one word: Pennsylvania. Our neighbors to the north have allowed all manner of pollution in the Susquehanna River but don’t have to deal with the consequences as it all flows south into Maryland and Virginia.
That’s not really a criticism of Pennsylvania so much as an acknowledgment of geographic and political circumstances. It’s not unlike Midwestern coal-fired power plants that blithely send pollution downwind into Mid-Atlantic states, including ours. It took federal intervention to spur change (and, ahem, more is needed). Maryland can sue (and has), but how much better to have the EPA take its usual carrot and stick approach to prod Pennsylvania into doing better? Mr. Regan surely understands the challenge. Until recently, he was North Carolina’s top environmental regulator. Previously, he worked at EPA under the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations. The real worry is that he’ll be timid. The Chesapeake Bay can’t afford that.
Earlier this month, no fewer than 14 environmental advocacy groups sent a letter to the acting EPA administrator and others demanding more aggressive enforcement actions by the EPA to protect the bay. The real danger, bay supporters recognize, is that the Biden administration will give their cause much lip service but won’t be willing to rock the boat. They’re right. We need some serious boat rocking. And it should start by appointing an experienced and high-profile czar like former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has both credibility on the issue and a deep knowledge of the region’s political landscape.
Mr. Regan is expected to focus on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in the months ahead. Fair enough. But we doubt he’ll find a project where EPA involvement is more vigorously sought after from local residents of every political stripe than this one so close to his doorstep.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.