The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ended a five-year legal challenge to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, rejecting without comment the American Farm Bureau Federation’s request that the court hear its argument that the federal government is effectively seizing land use authority from state and local governments.
The decision removes any legal cloud from the pursuit of the Bay pollution reduction strategy imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. It leaves in place a ruling last year by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said the plan “is reasonable and reflects a legitimate policy choice” by the EPA and the states in the Bay watershed.
In a statement, the EPA said it was pleased with the high court’s decision, which it said confirms that the agency’s action in imposing the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, on the 64,000-square-mile Bay watershed is in keeping with the Clean Water Act.
“We can now continue to build on the progress made in restoring local waters and the Chesapeake Bay,” the statement said.
William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which had sided with the EPA in arguing the case. called the decision “a historic day for the Bay…Now the Supreme Court has ruled and we can finally move on.”
Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall issued a statement saying critics of the TMDL were disappointed with the court's refusal to consider the case
"We remain firm in opposing this unlawful expansion of EPA's power," Duvall said. "We will closely monitor the agency's actions in connection with the Bay blueprint, as well as any efforts to impose similar mandates in other areas. This lawsuit has ended, but the larger battle over the scope of EPA's power is not over."
None of the states within the watershed had sided with the challengers, and several filed briefs in support of the EPA’s position. Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles quickly said on Twitter that the court’s ruling was “good news for the Bay and our pollution prevention efforts upstream.”
Still, the Farm Bureau had pulled plenty of support, with 92 members of Congress, 22 states and several business trade groups joining in filing briefs that asked the court to review the case. More than a dozen counties in Pennsylvania and New York also supported the challenge.
At the core of their argument, critics contended that the EPA overstepped its authority when it established the TMDL — often referred to as a “pollution diet,” which set limits on the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that could enter the Bay — because it apportioned those limits among states, river basins and sources of pollutants.
The Farm Bureau and its allies contended that setting limits on farm and urban runoff, wastewater treatment plants and stormwater in effect regulates land use — the authority for which rests with the states. Allowing the TMDL to stand, they said, would open the door “for a dramatic expansion of federal power over land use and water quality planning nationwide.”
Those arguments found no traction in federal courts. All four judges who heard the case — one district judge and three on the appeals court — sided with the EPA. The agency and its allies, which included environmental groups, wastewater treatment plant operators and several cities and states, argued that — far from being a federal land grab — the pollution allocations were developed in collaboration with the states during years of meetings.
“Congress made a judgment in the Clean Water Act that the states and the EPA could, working together, best allocate the benefits and burdens of lowering pollution,” Judge Thomas Ambro wrote in the unanimous Appeals Court ruling last July. “The Chesapeake Bay TMDL will require sacrifice by many, but that is a consequence of the tremendous effort it will take to restore health to the Bay…a goal our elected representatives have repeatedly endorsed.”
Critics of the TMDL had waged a campaign in recent weeks raising concerns about the potentially grave nationwide implications if it were allowed to stand. Nonetheless, the court’s rejection came without comment; it simply appeared on a long list of other cases that it had decided not to review during a closed meeting last Friday.
Environmental groups celebrated the action.
Rena Steinzor, a member scholar with the Center for Progressive Reform and a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, called it a “milestone victory for the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay,” though one with nationwide implications, in that it upholds the EPA’s authority to enforce pollution cleanups in this way.
“The Bay cleanup effort still has a very long way to go, with a lot of tough decisions and hard work ahead,” Steinzor said, “but the Court's ruling should give hope to the millions of people in this region who have had to live with degraded and polluted waters for decades.”