U.S. Water News Online
WASHINGTON — A conservation group filed a federal lawsuit Monday to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the law and clean up the polluted Chesapeake Bay, citing 25 years of failure to restore the nation's largest estuary.
The lawsuit asserts that the EPA's failure to meet its obligations “has led to the continued degradation of water quality in the Chesapeake Bay,” harming natural resources and the residents who depend on them.
Poor water quality caused by pollution has harmed the blue crab population, destroyed underwater grasses and hurt bay fish. The losses have badly damaged the soft shell and peeler blue crab fishery industries in Maryland and Virginia.
The U.S. commerce secretary last year declared a blue crab disaster, allowing Congress to appropriate economic assistance.
The EPA has said it's committed to fighting pollution. The agency contends partnerships — not lawsuits — are needed. But William Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and other supporters of the federal lawsuit say political foot-dragging has gone on too long. An EPA spokesperson did not immediately return a call for comment Monday.
Foundation attorney Jon Mueller said the lawsuit alleges the EPA's administrator has failed to comply with a congressional mandate to clean up the bay as specified in agreements signed in 1983, 1987 and 2000. The lawsuit also alleges agency actions were “unreasonably withheld,” and the EPA has failed to meet established deadlines.
Baker said enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act could revive the bay within five years.
“All that's missing is for the EPA to have the will to enforce that law,” Baker said Monday.
The foundation hopes President-elect Barack Obama's incoming administration will take note of the lawsuit and of numerous wastewater improvements in the Chesapeake watershed that a federal stimulus package could help put in motion.
Gov. Martin O'Malley recently outlined 100 wastewater infrastructure proposals, estimated at nearly $1 billion, many of which would benefit the Chesapeake Bay.
Commercial and sports fishing groups have signed on to the lawsuit, and so has former Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington a week after the foundation released a report pointing to pollution and over-harvesting as primary causes of steep declines in the crab population.
Last month was the 25th anniversary of a landmark agreement to clean up the waterway. Subsequent agreements in 1987 and 2000 also have failed to achieve their goals. The 2000 agreement called for reducing nitrogen and phosphorous pollution by 40 percent by 2010 — a deadline that will not be met.
Jane Barrett, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Law's Environmental Law Clinic in Baltimore, said she believes the case has sufficient legal ground and highlights years of unenforced environmental laws.
“I think it's a good vehicle for moving the discussion forward,” she said.
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