After a brief but rancorous debate, a House committee approved a fast-tracked bill that would shift regulatory powers over water, wetlands and mountaintop-mining regulation from U.S. EPA to the states.
In a 35-19, largely party-line vote, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee this morning approved the bill (H.R. 2018) backed by the top Republican and Democrat on the committee, Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.).
Four other Democrats also joined in support: Reps. Jason Altmire (Penn.), Leonard Boswell (Iowa), Jerry Costello (Ill.) and Tim Holden (Penn.).
But the measure ran into stiff resistance from the majority of committee Democrats, including Rep. Tim Bishop of New York. Bishop is the ranking member on the subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act, which the bill seeks to amend. Rep. Timothy Johnson (Ill.) was the only Republican who voted against the bill.
Republicans characterized the legislation as an effort to "rein in" the Obama administration EPA, which they said had run roughshod over states. They pointed to EPA's move to step up regulation of mountaintop-removal mining, including the agency's decision to revoke a key permit for a proposed mine in West Virginia, Rahall's home state, and to tighten state water pollution limits in Mica's home of Florida.
"It's important to move forward and pass this legislation because we have permitting delays that are stifling economic growth and job creation," said Ohio GOP Rep. Bob Gibbs, chairman of the water subcommittee.
Critics countered with sharp concerns that the bill would prevent EPA from updating state water pollution limits and permits after science identifies new pollution threats to human health or the environment. Downstream states would also suffer if upstream states failed to adequately regulate polluting industries or enforce permits and limits, Democrats argued.
Bishop said the bill "fundamentally undermines our nation's commitment to clean water" and offered an amendment that would essentially negate the changes and preserve EPA's authority over individual states. The amendment failed in a party-line voice vote.
"This go-it-alone approach flies in the face of science, common sense and decades of experience implementing the Clean Water Act," Bishop said.
But Rahall rejected that, saying the bill re-establishes the "cooperative federalism" in Clean Water Act enforcement and citing the slowdown of mining and job losses in his state. Among the legislation's provisions is a clause to limit EPA's ability to veto "dredge and fill" permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. States would have to approve such a move.
"What we are experiencing at least in the Appalachian region is an overreach by EPA," he said.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has said he hopes to have a floor vote on the bill this summer. Bishop objected to the committee's fast-track consideration of the measure, noting the markup was announced just days earlier -- and held in advance of a subcommittee hearing Friday meant to explore several of the relevant Clean Water Act issues.
Environmental groups were swift to condemn the vote. Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club's environmental quality program, said the committee acted "irresponsibly" in moving forward so quickly on a bill that "kicks the legs out from under the Environmental Protection Agency."
"Their attempt to hijack the Clean Water Act, roll back many of its provisions and undo 40 years of progress in cleaning up the nation's waters opens up new avenues for polluters to make Americans sick, dirty our waterways and further line their pockets at the expense of the taxpayer," Hopkins said in a statement after the vote.
Reporter Manuel Quinones contributed.