A poi­son pill for the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay


For all who cher­ish the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay and cham­pion ef­forts to save this na­tional trea­sure, re­ports of im­proved oxy­gen lev­els and re­bound­ing crab and oys­ter pop­u­la­tions should be rea­son to take heart. Col­lec­tive ef­forts of Ch­e­sa­peake wa­ter­shed states are bear­ing fruit, with wa­ter qual­ity im­prov­ing — but more progress is needed be­fore the United States’ largest es­tu­ary is truly out of the woods. Now, these hard-earned gains are threat­ened.

In Septem­ber, Rep. Bob Good­latte (R-Va.) in­tro­duced an amend­ment to the 2018 House ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill that would pro­hibit the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency from spend­ing funds to en­force the restora­tion plan known as the Ch­e­sa­peake To­tal Max­i­mum Daily Load. This de­lib­er­ate sab­o­tage was not Good­latte’s first at­tempt to thwart the col­lab­o­ra­tive fed­eral-state ef­forts in the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay.

Ac­cord­ing to Good­latte, the EPA should be stripped of its clear author­ity un­der the Clean Wa­ter Act to en­force pol­lu­tion lim­its to which all Ch­e­sa­peake Bay ju­ris­dic­tions have agreed and ded­i­cated years of in­vest­ment. Notwithstanding strong bi­par­ti­san op­po­si­tion, in­clud­ing 20 mem­bers from the bay wa­ter­shed, the amend­ment sur­vived. The ap­pro­pri­a­tions bill is now with the Se­nate.

Good­latte’s poi­son-pill amend­ment is just the lat­est in a string of at­tacks by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and some mem­bers of Congress to weaken or de­stroy bedrock en­vi­ron­men­tal laws. The Ch­e­sa­peake Bay To­tal Max­i­mum Daily Load is a quin­tes­sen­tial ex­am­ple of how the fed­eral gov­ern­ment should use the Clean Wa­ter Act’s author­ity and frame­work to join state part­ners in restor­ing and main­tain­ing our coun­try’s wa­ter­ways.

Af­ter 25 years of ex­ten­sive but ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful restora­tion ef­forts, vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one agreed that a new strat­egy was re­quired for the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay to be saved. The prospect of los­ing the bay, with a “nat­u­ral cap­i­tal value” of $107.2 bil­lion an­nu­ally and enor­mous recre­ational and en­vi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fit to mil­lions of Amer­i­cans, prompted wide­spread pub­lic out­cry and gal­va­nized re­gional lead­ers. All seven wa­ter­shed ju­ris­dic­tions — Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Vir­ginia, West Vir­ginia and the Dis­trict — worked with the EPA to de­velop a new Ch­e­sa­peake Clean Wa­ter Blue­print. De­signed to ramp up restora­tion and pol­lu­tion-con­trol ef­forts, the blue­print iden­ti­fied steps to re­duce ni­tro­gen, phos­pho­rus and sed­i­ment loads to im­prove wa­ter qual­ity in the bay and its trib­u­taries.

Un­like prior ef­forts, how­ever, this blue­print in­cluded a cru­cial ac­count­abil­ity frame­work and fed­eral back­stop author­ity to en­sure that each ju­ris­dic­tion ac­tu­ally does what it promised and that in­vest­ments made by all states are not wasted. Far from the dic­ta­to­rial over­reach Good­latte al­leged, the ac­count­abil­ity frame­work sim­ply con­tem­plates that the EPA will take cer­tain ac­tions if a ju­ris­dic­tion fails to meet its com­mit­ments. More­over, the To­tal Max­i­mum Daily Load — or pol­lu­tion di­ets — were not pun­ish­ment or ran­domly as­signed, as Good­latte as­serted, but rather were de­vel­oped af­ter an ex­ten­sive pub­lic process, us­ing state-ofthe-art mod­el­ing tools and mon­i­tor­ing data, peer-re­viewed sci­ence and close in­ter­ac­tion with each ju­ris­dic­tion. When spe­cial in­ter­ests out­side the bay wa­ter­shed then at­tacked the blue­print, we and other bay states suc­cess­fully de­fended the plan, which the court de­ter­mined to be a law­ful ex­am­ple of co­op­er­a­tive fed­er­al­ism.

The Se­nate is putting to­gether its ver­sion of the EPA’s bud­get, and pos­i­tive in­di­ca­tions sug­gest it will re­ject the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to fi­nan­cially gut the bay restora­tion pro­gram. While the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s bud­get would elim­i­nate all $73 mil­lion in fund­ing, the House bill pro­vides for $60 mil­lion, and Se­nate ap­pro­pri­a­tors have sig­naled they are likely at least to match this al­lo­ca­tion.

Whether the Good­latte amend­ment will sur­vive, how­ever, re­mains un­cer­tain and, thus, pro­vides Ch­e­sa­peake Bay cham­pi­ons a crit­i­cal op­por­tu­nity to make their voices heard. We must make clear the im­por­tance of our re­gion­wide, col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach and the cru­cial role the fed­eral gov­ern­ment must con­tinue to play to en­sure that all ac­tors are work­ing to­gether to­ward the com­mon goal of restor­ing this vi­tal wa­ter­shed.

As the first pres­i­dent to sign in to law pro­tec­tions for clean air and wa­ter 50 years ago, Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son coun­seled (on sign­ing the Wilder­ness Act): “If fu­ture gen­er­a­tions are to re­mem­ber us with grat­i­tude rather than con­tempt . . . we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the be­gin­ning, not just af­ter we got through with it.”

For our chil­dren and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, let us con­tinue the col­lab­o­ra­tion and vig­i­lance nec­es­sary to re­turn the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay to what it once was, in all its beauty and bounty. Brian E. Frosh, a Demo­crat, is the Maryland at­tor­ney gen­eral. Mark R. Her­ring, a Demo­crat, is the Vir­ginia at­tor­ney gen­eral. Karl A. Racine, a Demo­crat, is the D.C. at­tor­ney gen­eral.


Sam Bedinger cleans a boat used to har­vest oys­ters in the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay near White Stone, Va., in Janaury.

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