WATER POLICY:

EPA warns Mica-Rahall bill would 'overturn' clean water law

U.S. EPA warned of the potential dire consequences of legislation being fast-tracked through the House that would give states final say on rules concerning water, wetlands and mountaintop-removal mining.

In a four-page legal analysis, EPA said the measure (H.R. 2018) sponsored by House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) and ranking member Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) "would overturn almost 40 years of federal legislation by preventing EPA from protecting public health and water quality."

GOP House leaders expect to bring the bill to a floor vote this summer.

EPA said the Mica-Rahall bill would "significantly undermine" the agency's role of overseeing states' establishment and enforcement of water pollution limits and permits. It said the measure would hinder EPA's ability to intervene on behalf of downstream states harmed by pollution coming from a state upstream. And it said the bill would prevent EPA from protecting local communities from ill-conceived mountaintop-removal and similar projects allowed to go forward under Army Corps of Engineers-issued permits.

"This would fundamentally disrupt the balance established by the original [Clean Water Act] in 1972 -- a law that carefully constructed complementary roles for EPA, the Corps, and states," the analysis said.

That is the opposite of what proponents argue the bill would do. They say it would shore up what they see as the erosion of state authority under the Clean Water Act and restore a state-federal partnership on enforcement of the law.

At its core, the bill would prevent EPA from reversing or overruling previously issued approval of state water quality limits, permitting authority, or permits to dredge and fill waterways or wetlands.

Defenders of the agency say that power is necessary to keep up with new scientific understanding of pollution and health effects and to ensure that states, seen by many as more vulnerable to local influence and political pressure, are enforcing rules on their books to protect local and interstate waters.

Proponents of the bill counter that the Obama administration's EPA has abused that authority by overruling states, reversing decisions made under previous administrations and creating widespread regulatory uncertainty that has hindered job-creation and economic recovery.

Rahall and Mica have both bristled over EPA's recent actions affecting their home states, including the decision to subject mountaintop-removal mining applications to tougher review and to replace vague, state-established water pollution limits in Florida with tougher, numeric standards.

"Our coal miners are scared about their jobs, and they have received no comforting actions or signals," Rahall said yesterday before the committee approved the bill in a nearly party-line vote. "I hoped under this administration we would reach common ground. Unfortunately, that has not been the case."

In the analysis, EPA defends its power to veto permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, calling it "the action of last resort." Under the Mica-Rahall bill, the state would have to concur with the EPA veto.

Supporters rejected EPA's warnings, saying that states have a vested interest in protecting their waters and that EPA's arguments are "insulting to states, governors and state legislatures."

"It's not 1972 anymore -- we've come a long way since then," said Justin Harclerode, spokesman for committee Republicans. "These arguments only work if you believe that the states have no interest in protecting the health and safety of their citizens or the quality of their waters. ... Nothing in the bill overturns, prevents or eliminates any of EPA's traditional authorities or roles -- the bill simply restores the historic balance between the EPA and states under the Clean Water Act."

EPA provided the analysis to Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act. Bishop railed against committee leaders' efforts to fast-track the bill and offered an amendment yesterday that would preserve EPA's authority over individual states. The amendment failed along party lines.

"This go-it-alone approach flies in the face of science, common sense and decades of experience implementing the Clean Water Act," Bishop said.

Groups weigh in

The bill has prompted an outpouring of support and opposition from various corners of the debate on federal regulatory authority over water.

Environmental groups panned the committee vote to approve the bill.

"This bill is a recipe for increased pollution, dirtier waters and more mountaintop removal mining," said Jon Devine, senior attorney in the water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Its supporters seem intent on taking us back to the 'good old days' when rivers like the Cuyahoga caught fire and Lake Erie was declared dead."

Industry groups, such as the Associated Equipment Distributors, which represents heavy equipment dealers, supported the bill. "EPA is standing in the way of a broad range of economic activity that involves 'turning dirt,'" the group wrote in a letter to Mica and Rahall. "That is hampering job creation and recovery in an industry hit hard by the recession."

The National Water Resources Association (NWRA), which represents many Western agricultural irrigation districts and has advocated for states' rights over water, also applauded the bill. "The current EPA has continued to show little deference to states' rights," Executive Vice President Thomas Donnelly wrote in a letter to Mica.

A group of West Virginia chambers of commerce sent EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson a letter asking for swift consideration of mining permits, an issue the legislation seeks to address. The National Mining Association said the bill would "provide much needed certainty for jobs and the Appalachian economy."

Reporter Manuel Quinones contributed.

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