Sarbanes: GOP tide threatens Bay cleanup
With Congress home recovering from last week's debt-ceiling donnybrook, Rep. John Sarbanes says he's expecting a bruising fight over federal environmental programs in the fall when lawmakers return to Washington. If the GOP succeeds, he warns, it could undermine the progress recently made toward restoring the Chesapeake Bay.
Speaking this week in his Towson district office, the Baltimore area Democrat said the Republican majority in the House has embarked on a "systematic assault on the environment" by moving to cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency and other programs, such as national parks and wildlife refuges.
"As this larger debate about cutting our debt and deficit is happening, they are sort of piling on behind that as much as they can," Sarbanes said, with measures aimed at blocking new regulations or even rolling back existing environmental protections. Given the public's understandable fixation now with jobs and the economy, he said that "it's going to be very very difficult" to hold the line.
Republicans - with some Democratic allies - attempted earlier this year to block EPA from spending any funds in the current budget on a variety of controversial regulatory activities, including curbing climate-warming greenhouse gases and enforcing the agency's "pollution diet" for the Chesapeake. Though the House approved the spending curbs, the Senate refused to go along.
Now GOP members are making another run at EPA, proposing to reduce its funding significantly in the next year while also tacking a bevy of "riders" on the appropriations bill that would prohibit the agency from doing anything on climate, mountaintop coal mining and other moves by the agency that are opposed by various industries.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, is pushing proposals to block EPA's Chesapeake cleanup plan, which set a "total maximum daily load" of pollution for the bay and requires Maryland and the other five states in the watershed to reduce nutrients and sediment to meet that cap. Officials in Virginia and New York have complained about the costs of complying, while other states have resisted EPA's pressure on them to mandate reductions from farmers and local communities. Farm and development groups have sued to block EPA's plan.
GOP members and some Democrats contend that EPA has overstepped its authority and is pushing costly regulations that could hurt industry and kill jobs. EPA and its supporters, though, argue that the rules are mandated by law or court settlements and are meant to enhance the public's protection from air and water pollution.
Though in the minority in the House, Sarbanes said he'll keep arguing with his colleagues to maintain environmental programs, not just at EPA but in the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Interior Department, which manages the national parks and wildlife refuges. He said he also would attempt to win converts to his proposals for getting the public more engaged in the environment, and the bay cleanup in particular.
He's reintroduced his "No Child Left Inside Act," (HR2547), which would authorize federal grants for environmental education. It passed the last House, but died in the Senate. This time, as an indication of the partisan divide, Sarbanes was unable to enlist a single GOP cosponsor for the bill. Though environmental education is relatively noncontroversial, Sarbanes said many still view it as a frill or an add-on to the core school curriculum. He contends that integrating outdoor and environmental lessons into various courses actually boosts academic performance in fundamental subjects like math, reading and science.
Sarbanes is also pushing a measure he contends ought to appeal to conservatives opposed to the heavy hand of federal regulation. Dubbed the "Save the Chesapeake Bay Homeowner Act" (HR1651), it would encourage homeowners to plant rain gardens and do other things voluntarily to reduce polluted runoff - one of the bay's biggest threats. Under the bill, EPA would then be directed to give states and communities credit towards meeting their pollution diets, based on how many homeowners participate. To help win support for the bill, Sarbanes said he's looking for places in Maryland to do a "pilot" demonstration of how homeowners can make a signficant dent in runoff to streams and the Bay.
But Sarbanes has been on the losing side of most environmental and energy debates in the GOP-dominated House. An attempt by him, for example, to exclude the Atlantic off the Chesapeake Bay from a GOP push for more offshore oil and gas exploration failed. He admitted it's been frustrating, "kind of like you're always putting your finger in the dike," but vows to press on.
"Increasingly members of the public are ready, eager and willing to be part of the solution," Sarbanes maintained. "If we start stepping back from that," he warned, the bay cleanup could lose not only federal funding and pressure on states to act but would also be wasting opportunities to enlist citizens in the effort.
(Rep. John Sarbanes visiting Lansdowne Middle School in April. Patuxent Publishing photo by Phil Grout)