U.S. House Again Proposes Sweeping Rollbacks in Clean Water Safeguards


(Beyond Pesticides, July 18, 2011)

The U.S. House of Representatives has proposed to strip significant clean water protection from the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, commonly known as the Clean Water Act (CWA). In a vote on Wednesday, July 13, the Republican-controlled chamber passed the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011, H.R. 2018. The act would prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from stepping in to enforce clean water standards when it deemed that a state agency was not effectively enforcing the law. The bill would also prevent EPA from refining its existing water standards to reflect the latest science without first getting approval from a state agency. Supporters of the bill say that EPA has gone too far in its enforcement of water standards at the expense of economic development. Opponents, however, point out that the bill presents the potential for new risks to public health and the environment in allowing states to issue subpar water standards and making it more difficult for outdated standards to be revised.

The bill passed the House on a largely party-line vote of 239-184. 16 Democrats joined Republicans in support of the measure, while 13 Republicans voted against it. The fate of the bill in the U.S. Senate is less certain, as the Democrat-controlled chamber will be much less likely to pass such sweeping changes to environmental safeguards. After passage of the bill in the House, the White House issued a strongly worded statement threatening a veto if the bill made it to President Obama’s desk.

This action falls on the heels of another bill weakening the CWA, H.R. 872, already passed by the House earlier this year and recently voted out of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. The so-called Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2011 would revoke EPA’s authority to require permits for pesticide discharges into waterways. Several Democratic Senators have voiced strong opposition to the bill, suggesting the possibility of a filibuster. In response, Republican lawmakers have been attempting to amend the bill to an environmental appropriations act that is currently working its way through the Senate. Click here to send a message to your Senators urging them to stand with you in opposition to this dangerous bill.

Enforcement of national standards for clean water is based on a partnership of federal and state agencies. CWA delegates enforcement of federal clean water standards to state agencies by default, once EPA signs off. However, it gives authority to EPA to step in if the agency determines that a state’s actions do not measure up to the standards outlined in the act. H.R. 2018 would strip EPA of that oversight role and would require the agency to evaluate the economic impact of any enforcement actions that it takes. In addition to restricting the ability of EPA to issue new standards on water contaminants, provisions of the bill would prevent EPA from withdrawing approval of a state pollution permitting program or from objecting to any individual state-issued permit which EPA suspects is in violation of water quality standards.

Despite the suggestion of cooperation in the bill’s title, many agree that, if enacted, it would actually decrease the amount of give and take between state and federal agencies as it significantly limits the input that EPA can have in the process. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service stated in a memo that, “It is highly unusual for Congress to advance legislation that would broadly alter the federal-state partnership in order to address dissatisfaction with specific actions by EPA or another agency.”

The bill has been interpreted by some as a response to two recent instances in which EPA stepped in to enforce federal standards. The first was in 2005 and involved regulating agricultural runoff in Florida. In the second more recent instance EPA revoked a previously approved permit for water discharge from a planned coal mine in West Virginia. The speculation is fueled by the fact that the original sponsors of the bill are U.S. Representative John Mica (R) of Florida and U.S. Representative Nick Rahall (D) of West Virginia. Despite EPA’s efforts to ensure that their constituents have access to clean water for drinking and recreation, the two Representatives have sought to limit the agency’s powers in an attempt to rein in a perceived “regulatory nightmare.”

The bill would have implications reaching far beyond the two specific instances at issue. Clean water standards are set for a range of contaminants, including agricultural and pesticide discharge or runoff. As evidenced by the developments around H.R. 872, many believe regulation of pesticides around waterways to be burdensome and unnecessary despite widespread evidence that water contaminated with pesticides poses serious risks to public health and upsets fragile ecosystems, damaging natural resources. Critics of the bill also point to the fact that it makes little sense for states to be the only regulators ensuring clean water since most waterways cross state lines and watersheds cover large geographical areas encompassing many states. David Goldston of the Natural Resources Defense Council  points out that the Clean Water Act was adopted for a reason:

On clean water, history has already shown what happens when states are left to their own resources. They often engage in a race to the bottom,’ granting concessions to businesses whatever the impact on health and water quality, especially if the consequences will be most felt downstream in other jurisdictions. This was life before the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972 and few would see that as the good old days.’ Optimism is sometimes defined as the triumph of hope over experience. For this Congress, we need a word for the triumph of failure over experience.”

EPA was recently cited by Democrats on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce for its lax regulations regarding drinking water contaminants. Passage of H.R. 2018 would make it significantly more difficult for EPA to take action by regulating activities that cause these contaminants to enter waterways and end up in public drinking water supplies.

Although the bill’s supporters claim it would create jobs and help the economy, some observers are calling that claim into question. Additionally, an economic analysis done by the Congressional Budget Office found that enacting the bill would result in no significant reduction in federal spending.

Associated Press, Dow Jones Newswire, Bloomberg, Policito