Tue., 9:50am: Challenge to Chesapeake cleanup tests EPA power

WASHINGTON – Maryland is joining three other jurisdictions in supporting the Obama administration’s plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed, seeking to counter an election-year legal challenge by farmers and 21 attorneys general that could shape future U.S. environmental policy.

The case before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia asks whether the Environmental Protection Agency went too far in negotiating a 2010 agreement that sets pollution limits on the nation’s largest estuary.

The last of the legal briefs in the case were submitted late Monday. Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler argues that the cleanup is making progress and shouldn’t be derailed by outside states with no interest in the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed. Signing onto his brief are Delaware and the District of Columbia; Virginia earlier had submitted a separate brief in support. That means four of the seven bay jurisdictions who consented to the EPA cleanup in 2010 are now defending the plan in court.

“This lawsuit attacks our efforts to restore the health of the Chesapeake Bay and strengthen its crucial economic value,” Gansler said. “Maryland must preserve its partnership with an effective EPA to safeguard our environment and sustain the thousands of jobs supported by the bay.”

Among the other states which agreed to the Chesapeake plan, West Virginia is now opposing the cleanup, joining 20 other states who filed briefs against the EPA plan. Pennsylvania and New York are staying silent in the litigation.

“We’ve developed our plan in consultation with other states and the EPA, and we will continue to work with local governments, the agriculture community and other stakeholders to successfully implement our plan,” said Eric Shirk, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

It’s the latest sign of political division over EPA’s authority under the federal Clean Water Act, coming in a midterm election year. Earlier this month, a group of GOP senators urged the Obama administration to reconsider EPA plans to regulate many of the nation’s streams and wetlands.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman has called the EPA action “a remarkable power grab.”

But Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker describes the cleanup plan as the troubled bay’s “best, and perhaps last, chance for real restoration.”

Oral arguments are expected this summer, with a ruling afterward.