From the 1980s until 2010, the health of the Chesapeake Bay did not improve – and it even worsened in some areas, with the waters becoming murkier with algae – despite three state-led, voluntary bay cleanup agreements.
After the failure of the third agreement in 2010, President Obama’s administration changed directions and asserted more federal leadership. EPA for the first time imposed numeric pollution limits on each of the bay region states and threatened penalties against states that did not meet the goals of what was called the bay pollution “diet.”
Despite opposition from the farm lobby and real estate developers, the new system worked. According to the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, from 2011 to 2016, the overall health of the bay surged, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution fell, dissolved oxygen levels improved, the water became clearer, and the extent of underwater grasses in the bay doubled.
On September 7, however, U.S. Representative Robert Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and ally of the farm lobby, sponsored a bill designed to end the new system.
By a largely party-line vote of 214 to 197, the U.S House approved an amendment to an EPA appropriations bill that would prohibit the agency from taking any actions to penalize states that fail to meet their pollution limits.
Here’s Congressman Goodlatte, speaking on the floor of the House: “Mr. Chairman, this evening I rise to urge support for my amendment, which would re-affirm and preserve the rights of the states to write their own water quality plans.”
Betsy Nicholas is executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. She said Congressman Goodlatte was factually inaccurate in asserting that the federal government had taken over the role of writing state plans to reduce water pollution. In fact, EPA set pollution limits for the states – but then allowed the states to create their own strategies and plans to achieve those numeric limits.
“No. That is not true,” Nicholas said of Goodlatte’s claim that EPA had hijacked state authority. “The states and the federal government – here, the EPA – worked together on this. The EPA set some guidelines and provided some guidance to the states, but the states are responsible for developing their, as they call them, watershed implementation plans.”
One of the lawmakers voting against Goodlatte’s bill to strip EPA of its power to enforce the bay pollution limits was Congressman John Sarbanes of Maryland, a Democrat.
“This is the perfect instance in which you want to have the federal government as an important and robust partner in this effort of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay,” Sarbanes said. “And this idea that ‘states’ rights’ should prevail, and in a sense having all of the jurisdictions moving in different directions without any kind of collaboration, that is significantly undermining of the goal of cleaning up the bay.”
Now the House’s proposal moves on to the Senate. Last year, similar Goodlatte-sponsored legislation passed the house but died in the Senate. However, that was before the election of President Trump changed the political landscape by removing the threat of President Obama’s veto.
Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen said that while Congressman Goodlatte’s attack on EPA authority might have supporters in the anti-regulatory Trump Administration, it will face a tough hurdle in the Senate, where – because of procedural rules-- the measure would need 60 percent of the votes.
“Well, I will strongly oppose the provision the House added,” Van Hollen said. “We are going to work very hard to block it, and I am confident that we will be successful in blocking this, because the pollution ‘diet’ has been essential in helping to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay.”
That restoration is nowhere near complete, of course – but, with the threat of EPA enforcement, the cleanup has finally begun. The question is whether this new day for the bay will be overshadowed by the politics of states’ rights.