The federal government has agreed to do a better job monitoring efforts in Pennsylvania to reduce the amount of pollution that reaches the Chesapeake Bay, allowing lawsuits over the matter to be dismissed.
Several entities — including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Maryland Watermen’s Association and states downstream from Pennsylvania — filed lawsuits against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2020, alleging the federal government failed to require Pennsylvania to develop and carry out pollution-reduction plans.
Pennsylvania is part of the six-state watershed that drains into the Chesapeake Bay, and is obligated under the federal Clean Water Act and other agreements to reduce pollution that fouls waterways and sucks life-sustaining oxygen from the water. The federal government and states in the Chesapeake region previously agreed to make significant progress toward cleanup by 2025, though the parties acknowledge they’re likely to miss that deadline.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuits alleged that the EPA took no action against Pennsylvania after determining in 2019 that the state would fall short of its cleanup obligations.
“EPA has walked away from its responsibility to regulate and manage the efforts of the Bay states. Today, we are asking the court to force the EPA to do its job,” Brian E. Frosh, Maryland’s attorney general at the time, said in a statement when the state’s lawsuit was filed in 2020.
Maryland’s current attorney general, Anthony G. Brown, said in a statement: “This settlement is just the beginning. My office is fully committed to working with the Maryland Department of the Environment and our partners to ensure the EPA lives up to its commitments.”
The lawsuits were filed during the final months of Republican President Donald Trump’s administration, and carried over into the tenure of President Joe Biden, a Democrat.
After slowly wending through the court system, the parties in the lawsuits agreed this spring that the EPA would take specific actions to reduce Pennsylvania’s pollution from farming and stormwater runoff, as well as improve enforcement.
The work must focus on seven counties that have the largest impact on water quality in local rivers and streams: Lancaster, York, Bedford, Cumberland, Centre, Franklin and Lebanon.
The EPA opened a public comment period on the proposed settlement and ultimately gave final approval. The cases were officially dismissed on Wednesday.
“Clean water is essential to the health of local communities, economies and our way of life,” Chesapeake Bay Foundation President and CEO Hilary Harp Falk said in a statement. “This settlement addresses some of the most severe agricultural pollution problems by targeting efforts toward Pennsylvania counties where the need is greatest.”
In Pennsylvania, the EPA will be required to evaluate farms and sources of suburban stormwater runoff that aren’t currently under federal permits to determine if they’re damaging water quality and should be under permits.
The EPA will also increase its efforts to make sure that pollution permits in those counties are being followed, as well as work with Pennsylvania officials to bring permits up to date.
Adam Ortiz, regional administrator for the EPA, said in a statement that the settlement “closes a chapter of division and allows the EPA, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other parties involved to continue giving our full attention to the work needed to accelerate restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and its vast watershed.”