American Farm Bureau Sues EPA over Chesapeake Bay

Published March 14, 2011

The American Farm Bureau Federation is suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), saying the agency’s proposed plan to limit runoff of agricultural nutrients into Chesapeake Bay by placing new restrictions on regional agriculture will wreak economic havoc in rural areas.

Large Region Affected
The Chesapeake Bay, the largest watershed in the United States, comprises parts of six states; Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York, plus all of the District of Columbia. Some 17 million people live in the watershed, which is spread out over 64,000 square miles. The Chesapeake Bay itself is the largest inlet on the Atlantic coastal plain, stretching some 193 miles from north to south, its width varing from 3 to 25 miles.

Numerous rivers flow into the bay. These include the Potomac, York, James, Susquehanna, and Rappahannock and lesser-known ones such as the Nanticoke and Choptank.

Agriculture Blamed
Even though the Chesapeake Bay watershed includes such large metropolitan areas as Washington and Baltimore, EPA is primarily targeting the region’s agricultural sector, which the agency says will have to undergo a “pollution diet.” That diet, also known by its bureaucratic name, Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), calls for a 25 percent reduction of nitrogen and phosphorous and at least 16 percent less sediment compared with 2009 levels. These reductions are to take place by 2025. 

“Agricultural sources contribute the largest nutrient and sediment pollution in the watershed,” the agency claims, “accounting for approximately 38 percent of the nitrogen loading, 45 percent of the phosphorous loading, and 60 percent of sediment loading.” EPA says urban and suburban storm-water runoff contributes only 10 percent of the nitrogen loading and 31 percent of sediment loading. The agency’s plan emphasizes cutting runoff from farm fertilizer and imposing strict controls on confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Worrisome Precedent
The Farm Bureau says EPA’s far-reaching plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay will set a precedent for similar Washington-directed schemes in watersheds throughout the United States.

“We all want a clean and healthy Chesapeake Bay,” said Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman at the Farm Bureau’s annual meeting in January. “This lawsuit is about how we get there. Farm Bureau believes EPA’s ‘diet’ for the Chesapeake is dangerous and unlawful.

“This new EPA approach will not end with the Chesapeake Bay,” Stallman explained. “EPA has already revealed its plan to follow suit in other watersheds across the nation, including the Mississippi watershed. That is why our legal effort is essential to preserving the power of the states—not EPA—to decide whether and how to regulate farming practices in American watersheds.”

Hoping to stop EPA dead in its tracks, the Farm Bureau recently filed a lawsuit in federal court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, asserting, among other things, the agency lacks the statutory authority to impose its will on the states and other jurisdictions in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau is a co-plaintiff in the case.

EPA Sends Warning Shot
Sending a strong message that it will hold states strictly accountable for implementing the new restrictions, EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance pledged in a May 2010 statement to “exercise its enforcement authority and use compliance programs where the states have either failed to act or impede action.”

Stallman countered, “There is a basic level of scientific validity that the public expects and that the law requires. That scientific validity is missing here, and the impact could starve farming and jobs out of the region.”

“It has been clear for some time that EPA is a wholly owned subsidiary of radical environmental groups who think nothing of placing costly and unnecessary restrictions on America’s farmers,” said Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute.

“This action by EPA is totally unreasonable. It will raise food prices and put farmers out of business, with no real benefit to the environment or the public. This is an outrage, and everyone should support the actions of the American Farm Bureau to stop it,” said Lehr.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.