The Chesapeake Bay region would reap an additional $22.5 billion a year from improved hurricane protection, crab and fish production and climate stability if the Obama administration's contested plan to clean up the watershed proceeds, an environmental group says.
The assessment released Monday is based on a peer-reviewed analysis of the economic benefits to the entities — six states and the District of Columbia — charged with reducing pollution into the nation's largest estuary.
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It comes as the Environmental Protection Agency is defending its cleanup plan in federal court against a challenge from farmers and 21 attorneys general who say the pollution limits are unreasonably costly and an unjustified power grab by the federal government.
The study by Spencer Phillips, an economist at Key-Log Economics in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Beth McGee, a senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, compared the benefits of the Chesapeake watershed in 2009, before the cleanup plan was being implemented by the states, with scenarios in which the bay is either fully restored under the plan or continues "business as usual" without additional pollution limits.
The analysis found that implementing the cleanup plan — which seeks to achieve 60 percent of pollution reductions by 2017, and the rest by 2025 — would yield $129.7 billion annually in benefits such as flood protection from hurricanes and other storms, improved scenery that leads to tourism, cleaner water supplies and healthy forests that reduce heat and help regulate climate.
That tally is $22.5 billion higher than the $107.2 billion of benefits the watershed provided in 2009. Without additional pollution limits, the annual economic value would drop to $101.5 billion.
The report puts the total cost of implementing the cleanup with the 64,000-square-mile watershed at $5 billion to $6 billion annually.
"We all know that reducing pollution makes great sense for our health and our environment, and today we can confirm what we have long thought: It makes good economic sense as well," said William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, which is challenging the EPA plan in court, said it had not yet seen the report so it couldn't comment on the specifics. It supports cleanup generally, but "we think environmental benefits will accrue much faster if states lead the process because they are in a better position to balance the cost and benefits associated with the cleanup effort," said spokesman Will Rodger.
At issue is the scope of EPA's authority under the Clean Water Act. In 2009, President Barack Obama issued an executive order for a bay restoration after decades of state inaction, prompting the EPA to seek agreements with the states that set standards to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that drain from rivers into the bay.
Farm runoff such as animal waste and fertilizer had created "dead zones" in the bay where nothing lives. It has taken a toll on marine life such as the bay's signature blue crab, according to the EPA.
In their challenge, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the attorneys general point to economic consequences for industry groups and the potential for the EPA to improperly seek new restrictions. They say ratification of the Chesapeake plan will lead to similar EPA efforts to reduce pollution from Midwest farms into the Mississippi River Basin.
Oral arguments in that federal lawsuit are expected later this year in Philadelphia.
Among the states that agreed to the Chesapeake plan, West Virginia is now opposing the EPA-led cleanup. Pennsylvania and New York are staying silent in the litigation, while Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and the District of Columbia signed briefs in support.
A recent study by environmentalists found states in the Chesapeake watershed have made strides in reducing pollution but in many cases fell short in implementing practices that cut contaminants from agriculture.
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