It was an unusual move for the Obama administration.
Instead of waiting for a Friday afternoon to unveil a controversial new rule, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its Clean Water Act proposal on Tuesday – just days before Gina McCarthy, administrator of the EPA, was schedule to testify in Congress about the agency’s 2015 budget request.
The rule in question seeks to clarify a definitional quagmire that pestered the agency for nearly a decade: Which bodies of water does the EPA have the authority to regulate?
The rule would formalize regulatory guidelines already in place and, in time, provide a clear distinction between regulated and unregulated waters.
“Navigable waters” is the standard litmus for Clean Water Act regulation. The proposed rule would also cover streams, creeks, and wetlands that affect the quality of navigable waters. This is called having a “significant nexus” – a term that would be defined case by case under the proposal.
McCarthy told a House Appropriations subcommittee that the agency wants to establish greater clarity about its jurisdiction and it wants to hear from the public how best to determine a “significant nexus.”
“We are identifying the rivers, streams, and tributaries and other water bodies that science tells us are necessary to really protection the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our navigable waters,” McCarthy said.
Her arguments landed on mostly hostile ears in the Republican-led committee.
Hal Rogers, the Appropriations Committee chair, had contempt for the proposed rule, claiming hyperbolically that it was “the biggest land grab in the history of the world.”
The Republican who represents eastern Kentucky’s coal country also pinned America’s recent economic performance, underwhelming in his view, on the EPA boogeyman.
“You’re grinding to a halt the economic engine of this country,” Rogers said. “No wonder we’re having trouble getting the economy going again. It’s been terribly sluggish for years. And I think a major part of it is the regulations and the fear of this agency that is depressing the business climate of this country.”
Rogers claimed the proposed water rule would halt new shopping centers, road construction, and coal mining.
“That ain’t gonna happen, Madam Administrator,” Rogers said, vowing to oppose the rule. “And right here [in this committee] is where a good part of the fight is going to take place.”
EPA Budget Hearing
Though the Clean Water Act consumed the first 90 minutes of the budget hearing, a few words were said about the EPA’s $US 7.9 billion spending plan.
That figure represents a 3.8 percent cut from 2014, and it would be the fifth consecutive reduction in the agency’s budget.
The subcommittee chair Ken Calvert, a California Republican, applauded the cut.
“I see this proposed reduction as good for the first step in this year budget cycle as it brings the agency’s budget in line with more historic funding levels,” Calvert said.
Under the proposed budget, the EPA would have 15,000 employees, a reduction of 2,000 compared to 2011 and a level not seen since late 1980s. Calvert said the staff reduction is a priority for the subcommittee. That thinking is also reflected within the EPA, which, according to its five-year plan, published in November, will reduce the number of inspections by 30 percent and cut the number of enforcement cases by 40 percent.
Calvert did have concerns about funding for the nation’s water infrastructure. The president’s budget cuts two low-interest loan funds for drinking water and sewers by 25 percent.
“It’s important from both security and economic standpoint that we have a protective and efficient water infrastructure system,” Calvert said. “We often discount the value of clean drinking water until it is not there.”
Calvert did not connect the dots between regulatory oversight and clean water. His colleague, Democrat Nita Lowey of New York, did so for him.
“Cuts in staffing suggest a decrease in inspection and an increase in self-regulation by industry,” Lowey said. “The West Virginia chemical spill and North Carolina coal ash spill demonstrate the dangers of this approach.”
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Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton