In a move that environmentalists charged would undermine the Chesapeake Bay cleanup effort, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to bar the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from taking action against any state in the Bay watershed that fails to meet pollution reduction goals set by the EPA six years ago.
The measure, an amendment to an EPA and Interior Department spending bill put forward by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, passed Thursday night by a largely party line vote of 214 to 197. Goodlatte, who has pushed unsuccessfully before to block the EPA from enforcing its Bay “pollution diet,” said three GOP House members from Pennsylvania — G.T. Thompson, Bill Shuster and Scott Perry — joined him in introducing the amendment.
The 40 House members whose districts include a portion of the Bay watershed split nearly evenly on the controversial issue – 19 voted for it, 18 against, including six Republicans. The Bay watershed delegations in Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia overwhelmingly supported curbing the EPA’s authority, while those from Maryland, Virginia and Delaware did not. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-MD, who would have opposed the amendment, missed the vote on medical leave. Rep. Tom Garrett, R-VA, also missed the vote. And Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District, does not have a vote.
In a statement issued after the House vote, Goodlatte said his amendment was needed to prevent a “federal power grab” over the Bay cleanup effort.
“My amendment stops the EPA from hijacking states’ water quality strategies,” he said. “It removes the ability of the EPA to take retaliatory or ‘backstop’ actions against the six states located in the Chesapeake Bay watershed if they do not meet EPA-mandated goals.”
Goodlatte said that Congress had intended for states and the EPA to work collaboratively to carry out the federal Clean Water Act. But in the Obama administration, he added, “every state in the watershed has basically been given an ultimatum — either the state does exactly what the EPA says, or it faces the threat of an EPA takeover of its water quality programs.”
But Kim Coble, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that Goodlatte’s amendment would strip the federal-state restoration effort of needed accountability just as water quality is improving. She pointed out that the states had all agreed, after failing to meet earlier voluntary cleanup goals, to work toward the pollution reduction targets the agency set in 2010.
“However, only EPA has the ability to enforce the agreement in the event that a state fails to meet its commitments,” Coble said. “By suspending this backup enforcement authority, the Goodlatte Amendment threatens the viability of the [cleanup plan].”
The EPA annually reviews each of the six Bay watershed states’ efforts to reduce nutrient and sediment pollution as called for in the 2010 plan. If any state fails to meet its milestones and hasn’t done enough to get on track, agency officials have warned they’ll take “backstop” actions. Those can range from withholding federal funds to imposing regulations on smaller farm animal operations or tightening discharge limits for wastewater treatment plants.
The EPA briefly withheld nearly $3 million in grant money from Pennsylvania in 2015 after finding the state lagging badly in curbing farm runoff and stormwater pollution. The money was restored, but the agency has since warned the state it may take additional actions if it doesn’t do more to meet its pollution reduction goals.
The EPA’s authority to enforce its “total maximum daily load,” or pollution diet, for the Bay, was challenged in federal court by farming and building groups. They were joined by attorneys general for 22 states — including Oklahoma’s Scott Pruitt, now the EPA administrator — who feared that the Bay pollution diet might inspire similar federal pressure on states to deal with nagging water quality problems elsewhere, particularly in the massive Mississippi River watershed. District and appellate courts upheld the agency’s authority in the Chesapeake case, though, and the U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to review those decisions.
The House has yet to take a final vote on the bill, which would provide $31.4 billion in fiscal 2018 to fund the Interior Department, EPA and several other agencies — restoring many, but not all, the sharp cuts proposed by the Trump White House. The Senate also is still mulling its version of the spending bill, which could differ markedly from the House’s. Environmentalists said they'd urge senators not to go along with the Bay-related amendment. It’s far from clear if the two chambers will be able to agree on the overall budget, as standoff that would effectively kill this restriction on EPA. With the new fiscal year set to begin Oct. 1, Congress earlier this week agreed to pass a continuing resolution keeping spending at the current level for another three months.
(As originally posted, this story misstated the number of House members voting against the Goodlatte amendment. The Bay Journal regrets the error.)