Oberstar bearish on strengthening the Clean Water Act

Outgoing Rep. Jim Oberstar was bearish about efforts to strengthen the Clean Water Act in a farewell press conference today.

The 18-term Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who lost in a stunning midterm upset to Republican newcomer Chip Cravaack, has thus far failed to gain the necessary support this year to pass a bill out of committee that would have reaffirmed the Clean Water Act's jurisdiction over all waters of the United States, as opposed to just those deemed "navigable."

"I think it's unlikely that this legislation would move in the lame-duck session of Congress," Oberstar said.

The bill, which Oberstar filed in April, represents his fifth attempt to amend the Clean Water Act in recent years by, among other things, deleting the word "navigable," so that all rivers, streams and certain wetlands would be covered.

Without action during the lame duck, someone would have to step up to introduce the bill again in the next Congress. Oberstar said he "would hope there would be advocates" to do so.


In a recently published clean water strategy, U.S. EPA said it intended to "support legislation and consider administrative action to restore the CWA [Clean Water Act] protections for our waters and the ecological systems."

Asked if EPA should try to better regulate waters in question in the absence of new legislation, Oberstar noted that if regulators could, "they would have done so."

Uncertainty over what waters the Clean Water Act covers created a legal logjam that has forced regulators to delay or drop hundreds of investigations as pollution rates have risen. The confusion stems from two Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 -- Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Rapanos v. United States -- that took strict interpretations of the law.

Subsequent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. EPA rulings under the George W. Bush administration further rolled back protections, supporters of Oberstar's bill say.

"EPA and the Army Corps and the Department of Agriculture and CEQ [the White House Council on Environmental Quality] all are constrained by the Supreme Court decision," Oberstar said. "The fact is, they need this legislation in order to have clarity and certainty in administering existing law."

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