Chesapeake Bay pollution diet survives legal challenge

A federal judge on Friday upheld the Environmental Protection Agency's right to impose a pollution "diet" for the Chesapeake Bay, rejecting a legal challenge to the restoration effort from farmers' and builders' groups.

U.S. District Judge Sylvia H. Rambo ruled that the EPA did not overstep its legal authority in requiring Maryland and the other five states in the bay watershed to accelerate their efforts to reduce pollution fouling the estuary. Rambo also found that the EPA had not relied on bad science in setting the new cleanup targets, nor had it denied the public a chance to provide input.

Declaring that "the ecological and economic importance of the Chesapeake Bay is well documented," Rambo said that the EPA acted properly to take charge of a cleanup effort that had dragged on for decades. Pollution remains "a critical concern," she said, and the federal agency is needed to coordinate states' actions.

An EPA spokeswoman issued a statement calling the ruling "a victory for the 17 million people in the Chesapeake Bay watershed."

William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which had intervened on EPA's side, called it a "vindication for EPA's authority and responsibility to enforce scientifically derived pollution reduction standards."

A spokeswoman for the American Farm Bureau said the Washington-based group, which had brought the suit in 2011, was still reviewing the 99-page decision.

The case has drawn national attention, as supporters and critics alike saw the Chesapeake pollution diet as a possible forerunner of federal action to clean up degraded water bodies elsewhere.

Encompassing a six-state region, the bay plan imposed in late 2010 was the largest and most complex watershed restoration blueprint ever drawn up by the EPA. It ordered states to increase their efforts to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution by 2025, and threatened sanctions if they fell short.

Environmentalists welcomed the plan, which came after a largely voluntary "partnership" of states and the EPA had failed since the 1980s to meet self-imposed cleanup deadlines. The bay foundation and other groups had sued, accusing the agency of neglecting its responsibilities to ensure clean water.

But the EPA initiative drew fire from farmers and builders, who complained that it was based on flawed computer modeling and would drive them out of business with costly and burdensome regulations. The American Farm Bureau Federation and its Pennsylvania chapter filed suit in Harrisburg within days of the EPA's finalizing its plan, to be joined later by the fertilizer industry, chicken and pork producers and home builders. Environmental groups and local sewage plant operators came in on EPA's side.

Lawyers for farmers and builders argued in court last October that the pollution diet was an illegal federal power grab, in which the EPA was seeking to clamp down on farm and development runoff, something Congress did not authorize it to do. They also challenged how the pollution reduction targets were set and allocated.

But Rambo found that the EPA did not go too far, noting that "cooperative federalism can be, at times, messy and cumbersome." She said states had — and still have — the ability to adjust pollution reduction efforts.

Baker said he hoped the plaintiffs would not appeal.

"We urge them to put their money and effort toward … actions that actually contribute to pollution reduction," he said.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com