EPA Lags on Chesapeake Bay Cleanup, Duo of Lawsuits Claim

Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay is the crown jewel of the Eastern Shore and, beyond being an important natural ecosystem, a major economic driver for businesses large and small and in the tristate area. (Courthouse News photo/Brandi Buchman)

WASHINGTON (CN) — In a one-two punch Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency was hit with two federal complaints over its large-scale plan to protect the Chesapeake Bay, America’s largest estuary.

Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., lead one of the complaints, which focuses on lax enforcement of the so-called Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, a plan that aims to limit the total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs, of pollution dumped into the bay.

Back in May, the same entities fired a warning shot that they would take legal action if the EPA did not crack down on Pennsylvania and New York’s failure to uphold watershed implementation plans. Known as WIPs, the plans outline two-year milestones that states surrounding the bay are supposed to meet. 

“As a result of EPA’s regulatory retreat, Pennsylvania and New York will fall significantly short of their nutrient reduction goals and the long and difficult journey to restore the bay may end short of success,” the complaint states. 

Together with the EPA, states surrounding the Chesapeake Bay have relied on TMDL limits to aid in watershed cleanups since the early 1990s. 

Under President Barack Obama, the EPA drew up the 2025 goals aimed at tackling nutrient management and animal-waste control, while also improving soil conservation and forest buffers. The Third Circuit ruled in 2015 that the agency held authority to enforce the plan under federal law. 

As the states suing the EPA argued, however, such enforcement has ebbed. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation lobbed similar allegations in its own complaint against the agency Thursday.

“We filed this lawsuit to force the EPA to do its job, protect decades of environmental work and billions of dollars invested, and ensure all the watershed states work together,” D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said in a statement. 

Racine added: “Safeguarding the health of the bay — and all of our interconnected rivers and streams—is impossible without everyone doing their part.”

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation argues the EPA cannot merely rubber-stamp inadequate WIPs put forward by Pennsylvania and New York, claiming the agency ignored “ample evidence” from the states and its own experts that their plans would fail. 

“As the Third Circuit held, ‘it would surely be arbitrary or capricious for the EPA to approve a plan that a state is incapable of following,’” the environmental group argued Thursday. 

Both lawsuits are filed in Washington, warning that increasingly murky water and algae blooms caused by discharge from nearby tributaries is blocking sunlight from reaching underwater grasses, triggering an oxygen reduction that endangers aquatic life. 

“At points during the summer months, oxygen becomes so low that it creates a ‘dead zone,’ where plant and animal life are unable to survive,” the complaint warns. 

The consequences are dire for states like Maryland with an economy heavily reliant on the estuary. 

“These grasses provide critical nursery and feeding habitats for finfish and shellfish,” the complaint states. “Affected species include Maryland’s state fish, the striped bass, as well Maryland’s state crustacean, the blue crab — both of which are important to Maryland’s economy. Cloudy and turbid waters also impact recreational users of the Chesapeake Bay.”

The government plaintiffs argue they have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into meeting pollution-reduction targets, now less than five years out. 

But Pennsylvania and New York are falling short of their commitment to the 2025 plan by $324 million and $41 million each year, respectively. 

“EPA has admitted that neither Pennsylvania nor New York will meet their nutrient reduction targets,” the complaint states. “The agency found that Pennsylvania would achieve only 75% of its TMDL-required reductions for nitrogen pollution. Similarly, EPA concluded that New York would meet only 66% of its TMDL-required reductions for nitrogen pollution.”. 

EPA spokesman Roy Seneca said Thursday in response to the lawsuits that the government is focused on meeting the 2025 goals with its state partners to restore the estuary. 

He pointed to one example of Chesapeake blue crabs clocked in at 594 million in 2019, above the healthy population threshold.

“In the past year alone, EPA and its federal partners have provided nearly a half billion dollars to support bay watershed restoration activities, and EPA has delivered thousands of hours of technical assistance to the states, as well as comprehensive reviews of state implementation plans and progress forecasts to identify strengths and weaknesses,” Seneca said in an email. 

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