“The ecological and economic importance of the Chesapeake Bay is well-documented," Judge Sylvia Rambo wrote in her decision in support of the federal pollution limits, which was released on Friday. "As the largest estuary in the United States, the Chesapeake Bay is essential for the well-being of many living things.... In short, the court concludes that the framework established by the Bay Partnership in developing the (pollution limits) is consistent with” the law.
EPA established pollution limits for the Bay (also known as the Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL) in December 2010 after regional states failed to meet deadlines in 2000 and 2010 to significantly reduce pollution in the nation's largest estuary. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and partners filed a legal action to compel EPA to issue the pollution limits.
Judge Rambo’s decision allows the Chesapeake region states to move ahead with science-based plans to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution to meet the EPA targets. These cleanup plans are also called the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.
“This is a great day for clean water in the region. There could be no better outcome,” said Will Baker, President of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which had joined the lawsuit to argue on behalf of the EPA pollution limits. “CBF and our partners respectfully salute the thoughtful legal decision making by Judge Rambo.”
Why do the EPA pollution limits matter? For the first time, the federal government is threatening penalties to the states if they do not make concrete progress toward meeting incremental two-year cleanup goals. The states must have programs in place by 2025 to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution by about 25 percent, or they will face consequences, including a possible withholding of federal funds.
CBF’s partners in joining in the legal defense of the pollution limits included Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, Defenders of Wildlife, Jefferson County (WV) Public Service District, Midshore River Keeper Conservancy, and the National Wildlife Federation.
“As one of the 17 million people who live near a river or stream flowing to the Chesapeake Bay, I am thrilled that the court ruled in favor of clean water, fishable rivers, and safe places for children to swim,” said Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.
On the other side, arguing that the pollution limits should be thrown out, were the American Farm Bureau Federation, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, National Chicken Council, National Association of Home Builders, National Corn Growers Association, National Pork Producers Council, the Fertilizer Institute, and other industry groups.
The farm and development lobbyists argued that EPA overstepped its legal authority, used bad science to set the limits, and did not allow enough time for public comments. Judge Rambo rejected all three arguments. EPA followed the federal Clean Water Act, employed the best available science, and led a very open process leading up to the issuance of the pollution limits, holding 730 meetings on the subject between 2005 and 2010, according to Rambo’s ruling.
“It would be misleading to say that EPA was the sole author" of the Bay pollution limits, Rambo wrote. “Rather, the allocations were devised largely by the state …. The process included considerable back-and-forth between EPA and the Bay states.”
In other words, EPA’s creation of pollution limits for the Bay was not an illegal federal power grab, as the industry lobbyists claimed, but a logical and legal action based on years of collaboration.
If the plaintiffs had succeeded in their efforts to throw out the pollution limits, restoring the Bay to health could have been much more difficult.
But justice prevailed. The big winners are the Bay and future generations of people who love the estuary, as well as the 3,600 species of fish, animals, and plants that rely on the Chesapeake’s waters as their home.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation