Our opinion: Juneau on the Chesapeake

That huge expanse of water that many Keystone State denizens know only as what lies beyond the mouth of the Susquehanna River is getting its turn before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.

The Chesapeake Bay, home to blue crabs, oysters, the striped bass bay fishermen call rockfish, and about a million sailboats, is America’s largest estuary, a body of water H.L. Mencken called “an immense protein factory.”

The ascerbic sage of Baltimore would be appalled to know that following more than half a century of polluting runoff from the states that feed it fresh water, there are now significant areas of the bay that have died.

That’s right, dead zones, where nothing lives.

Some time ago, six states and the District of Columbia, some of which even in small ways drain fresh water drainage to the bay, signed on to a compact negotiated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to forestall the death of the bay and restore its biological health close to what it was even a half century ago.

West Virginia, one of those jurisdictions, now opposes the cleanup and has joined a number of other states trying to convince the 3rd Circuit that the EPA has overstepped its bounds in the endeavor.

Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and the the District of Columbia are defending the effort, they being the most negatively affected if the Chesapeake continues to deteriorate. Pennsylvania and New York are staying out of the fight.

For those who are not geographically challenged, the 20 other states opposing the Chesapeake Bay cleanup might be surprising: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, most of them led by Republican governors.

It’s likely that the attorney generals of those states care not a whit about the Chesapeake Bay. What they fear is precedent, that the mighty behemoth that is the EPA will force them to clean up their polluted streams, rivers and bays under the auspices of the Clean Water Act. It is a midterm election year, and the heavy hand of the federal government is prominently displayed on Red State platforms.

But, working against the phobia of all things federal in this case is the fact that seven independent jurisdictions agreed to the plan, and a majority of the seven are actively defending it because it appears to be working.

Nevertheless, the outcome of the case could have a wide-ranging effect on environmental policy throughout the nation.