Chesapeake Bay cleanup requires EPA involvement

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has once again attacked EPA involvement in Chesapeake Bay cleanup (file photo).
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has once again attacked EPA involvement in Chesapeake Bay cleanup (file photo). (AFP/Getty Images)

In a perfect world, the voters of Virginia's 6th district, the mountainous segment of western Virginia that roughly parallels Interstate 81, would be given a tour of the wetlands and waterways, crab pots and work boats of the Eastern Shore for a day so that they might have a better appreciation for the Chesapeake Bay and the interstate battle against water pollution that rages on. Surely, were they so enlightened, they would be no more capable of electing Bob Goodlatte to Congress than Ebeneezer Scrooge could have given Tiny Tim the cold shoulder after his Christmas Eve revelations.

Alas, such justice can only be found in the novels of Charles Dickens. Instead, 6th District Virginians routinely re-elect Rep. Goodlatte, who last week set upon a familiar task of neutering the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its involvement in the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Under an amendment offered by Mr. Goodlatte and approved by the House last Thursday on a narrow 214 to 197 vote, the EPA would be prevented from taking any action against a state in the bay watershed that fails to meet the "pollution diet" standards already agreed to by the states. In effect, it would take away accountability from Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts with the obvious effect of returning Maryland, Virginia, D.C., Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and West Virginia to the bad old days of ineffective, voluntary cleanup goals.


How awful is the Goodlatte amendment? It was so destructive that even Maryland's own voice against federal regulation, Republican 1st District Rep. Andy Harris, voted against it. How notable is that? Mr. Harris is a member of the hard right Freedom Caucus; Mr. Goodlatte, who serves as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is not.

The proposal comes as no surprise, of course. Mr. Goodlatte convinced the House to take similar action in 2016, and it passed by a 34-vote margin at the time. A half-size victory represents progress of a sort. But it also reveals a big difference between the anti-regulatory fervor of conservatives and the reality on the ground (or in the water) for Americans who actually live with pollution. Just take a look at how the 40 House members living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed voted. As reported by the Bay Journal's Tim Wheeler, those living farthest from the water (Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York) supported the amendment while most representing Maryland, Virginia and Delaware opposed.

One assumes Mr. Goodlatte doesn't hate the Chesapeake Bay; he simply isn't much invested in its welfare. What he does obviously care about is pleasing his supporters, many of whom oppose "EPA power grabs," which is how Mr. Goodlatte has described the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load or TMDL, the blueprint for the bay cleanup. But it's also appealing to Chesapeake Bay polluters and those who face potential enforcement action — a reason why the American Farm Bureau Federation has actively crusaded against the TMDL. Farmers are especially worried that EPA will be involved in similar efforts in the Great Lakes or other parts of the country where agricultural runoff is harming water quality.

The Goodlatte amendment didn't pass the full Congress last year, and it may not this year. But it's still troubling that so many people living in the Chesapeake Bay watershed don't understand the consequences of their reflexive anti-regulatory fervor. Considerable progress has been made in recent years in bay cleanup efforts because of anti-pollution targets the EPA helped set in 2010. If Maryland honors its commitments but other states do not, what is the result? Water quality suffers and Marylanders are harmed twice — by the failure of other states to curb pollution that runs downstream and by making sacrifices that are not required of others.

Even the most ardent capitalist recognizes that the system requires a referee otherwise there's a host of problems from insider trading to unsafe working conditions to polluted waterways and air. The blueprint isn't an EPA power grab, it's the fulfillment of a duty required by the Clean Water Act to ensure human health and safety. Pollution crosses state lines, and no amount of legislation is going to alter that scientific fact. If anything, Mr. Goodlatte's amendment demonstrates why fighting pollution must involve the federal government. Someone has to see the forest for the trees — or perhaps the beneficial wetlands for the potential development tract. Virginia's 6th District representative lacks that vision.

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