There are times when the Environmental Protection Agency resembles some of the problems it is meant to counter. Like an oil slick, the EPA bureaucracy continually expands outward, imposing regulations on all that it encounters. The latest example is a little-noticed case involving the Chesapeake Bay. There, the federal environmental agency has asserted breathtakingly broad powers to override state authority and dictate agricultural practices throughout a 64,000-square-mile watershed area. District Court Judge Sylvia Rambo encouraged the EPA’s power grab in a Sept. 13 ruling.

Rambo’s ruling is being challenged by farmers’ groups who are rightfully worried about its implications. “This case isn’t about whether or not to protect the Chesapeake Bay — we all share that goal. This case is about whether EPA can dictate where farming will be allowed, where homes can be built and where businesses can be established,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman.

In a nutshell, the EPA is taking advantage of the complexity and occasional confusion regarding the division of responsibility for maintaining the bay’s environmental health. The bay connects six states: Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York. Maintenance must be coordinated between them and the EPA.

That has frustrated environmental groups who have to divide their lobbying resources to pressure six different state governments, as well as the powers in Washington, D.C. In 2011, a coalition led by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation won a lawsuit requiring the EPA to become more assertive on the regulatory front. Not coincidentally, one of foundation’s funders is the EPA. It’s a neat system the regulators have. The agency’s standard operating procedure is to use such rulings in litigation filed by groups on the receiving end of EPA grants or contracts as a pretext to expand its powers. Then the federal bureaucrats claim, “We’re just doing what the court told us to do.”

In this particular case, the issue is limiting nitrogen-based fertilizer runoff into the bay. Rambo’s ruling allows the EPA to unilaterally establish new limits, thus bypassing state authorities that heretofore monitored the runoff. This robs the states of flexibility. County variations in allowable levels applied to farms and businesses will now only be possible if the EPA’s slow-moving regulatory satraps approve them. The next step will be EPA local land use codes that supplant county and municipal authorities.

Rambo, curiously, conceded that the EPA was overstepping its authority. “The court agrees that EPA is not authorized to establish or otherwise take over (runoff) implementation plans. However, here again, it would go too far to say that EPA has no role in developing state implementation plans,” Rambo wrote.

The judge also claimed compliance with the EPA’s new power was merely voluntary. That is true in the sense that the states can “voluntarily” decide to be penalized by the EPA instead of cooperating like good little minions. Environmental ideologues routinely think overzealousness is fine in pursuit of goals like the purity of the Chesapeake Bay, but the precedent here gives EPA too much power over people's livelihoods.