Jan. 14--Members of Virginia and Maryland's congressional delegations are demanding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency live up to its obligation to enforce cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay.
The move came days after EPA Chesapeake Bay Program Director Dana Aunkst reportedly called the 2025 pollution diet targets for bay states -- targets they've been striving to reach for 10 years -- "an aspiration" rather than an enforceable deadline.
In a letter Friday to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, lawmakers claim they're "deeply disturbed" by those comments. Signatories include Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and U.S. Reps. Robert "Bobby" Scott, Elaine Luria and A. Donald McEachin.
"This is totally contrary to the intent of this decadelong effort and, if it is the position of the EPA, risks critical progress to restore the Chesapeake Bay," the letter reads.
Lawmakers also noted that a federal appeals court has said states bear primary responsibility for pollution controls, "with 'backstop authority' vested in the EPA."
"We are extremely concerned that EPA appears to be backing away from its statutory obligations" to restore the bay, lawmakers wrote.
They're demanding that Wheeler respond within 14 days to clarify whether pollution reductions are aspirational or enforceable, if he agrees EPA has the authority to enforce reductions and hold bay jurisdictions accountable, if EPA will remain an active partner in restoration and the agency's plan and timeline for enforcement.
Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania are the biggest polluters of the bay. Virginia and Maryland are largely on track to meet their reduction targets, while Pennsylvania has chronically lagged behind and has no plan in place that will meet its goals by 2025.
Bay advocates have long been frustrated by Pennsylvania, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation threatened to sue to force the state to reduce pollutants. CBF President Will Baker said EPA's failure to impose consequences "puts the entire cleanup at risk."
Last week, at CBF's urging, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan directed his attorney general in a letter to sue both Pennsylvania for "repeatedly falling short" of its commitments and the EPA for failing to hold the state accountable.
"We have a generational responsibility to protect the bay," Hogan wrote, "and we simply cannot afford to fall short of these shared obligations."
Hogan is chairman of the Chesapeake Executive Council, a leadership group of the Chesapeake Bay Program that sets policy direction for bay restoration.
Gov. Ralph Northam's office said Monday the administration is discussing "various next steps" with Hogan, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring and other regional partners.
Virginia and other states in the 64,000-square-mile watershed had tried and failed for years to reduce pollution to the bay. In 2010 they partnered under the Chesapeake Bay Program and agreed to meet total maximum daily loads that the EPA set for pollutants. Finally, bay health began to improve.
Restoring the bay enjoys bipartisan support in Washington, except in the White House. Donald Trump has tried every year to gut federal funds to the Chesapeake Bay Program, but the House and Senate keep funding it.
Last month, Congress even passed a spending bill to hike the program's annual federal budget from $73 million to $85 million. And on Thursday the Senate approved a conservation bill that would boost it to $90 million through 2025.
The America's Conservation Enhancement Act would also provide matching grants for fish and wildlife conservation in the watershed and grants for the bay's Gateways and Watertrails Network. That measure will now move to the House for consideration.
Tamara Dietrich, 757-247-7892, [email protected]
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