US court upholds EPA plan to clean up Chesapeake Bay

PHILADELPHIA — A US appeals court Monday approved a federal plan to limit pollution in the Chesapeake Bay despite objections from farmers, builders, and others who accused the Environmental Protection Agency of a power grab.

The ruling by the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld restrictions on farm and construction runoff and wastewater treatment. It has the support of environmentalists and officials in the six states in the bay’s watershed.

“The Chesapeake Bay [plan] will require sacrifice by many, but that is a consequence of the tremendous effort it will take to restore health to the bay — to make it once again a part of our ‘land of living,’ a goal our elected representatives have repeatedly endorsed,” Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro wrote, quoting American poet Robert Frost.


The bay, the nation’s largest estuary, serves a growing population in nearby cities and towns and supports commercial ventures that include fishing, farming, shipping, and tourism. The resulting pollutants have led to dead zones with opaque water and algae blooms that make it difficult for aquatic life to survive, environmentalists said.

The judges called pollution in the bay a complex problem — with clear winners and losers — that affects 17 million people.

“The winners are environmental groups, the states that border the Bay, tourists, fishermen, municipal waste water treatment works, and urban centers. The losers are rural counties with farming operations, nonpoint source polluters, the agricultural industry, and those states that would prefer a lighter touch from the EPA,” Ambro wrote in his unanimous opinion.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Association of Builders, the Fertilizer Institute, and others have fought the restrictions, arguing that the EPA’s comprehensive plan usurped state authority to regulate waterways. However, the three-judge panel found their arguments “unpersuasive.”

“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,” the ruling stated.


Animal waste and fertilizer that moves from streams into the Chesapeake is the single largest source of bay pollution, according to the EPA. Scientists have said the bay absorbs too much nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment to maintain a healthy ecosystem. The decision Monday upholds a September 2013 decision by US District Judge Sylvia Rambo in Harrisburg.

The EPA expects 60 percent of the plan to be implemented by 2017, with the rest in place by 2025.

The six watershed states that previously agreed to the pollution limits and support the plan are Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, along with Washington, D.C.

The farm bureau plans to review the ruling for several days before deciding whether to appeal or take other actions, spokesman Will Rodgers said.