House Bill Seeks to Weaken EPA’s Oversight Authority, Impairs Federal Role under Clean Water Act

by Katie Greenhaw, 6/2/2011

A bill introduced in the House last week by Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) and Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-WV) proposes removing crucial federal oversight from the Clean Water Act (CWA).

Under the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011 (H.R. 2018), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would lose its abilities to object to state-approved permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program, revise state water quality standards, and veto dredge and fill permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. By restricting or eliminating these important checks on state programs under the CWA, the bill would impair EPA’s ability to effectively carry out its statutory duties and ensure that the goals of the act are met.

The press release announcing the bill, entitled “Committee Leaders Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Rein in EPA,” vilifies EPA and continues to pit federal and state interests against each other in the area of environmental protection. According to the press release, the bill will amend the CWA to “preserve the system of cooperative federalism established under the CWA in which the primary responsibilities for water pollution control are allocated to the states.” This misstates the federal and state roles envisioned by the act. The federal-state relationship is not designed to allow EPA to “steamroll” the states or arbitrarily veto state decisions, but rather to give states flexibility in implementing programs while ensuring that state regulators are fulfilling the requirements of the CWA. In fact, EPA has authorized states to implement the NPDES program in all but a handful of states and is reluctant to withdraw approval of state NPDES programs.

Ignoring the federal oversight authority and federal-state relationship clearly crafted in the CWA, Mica continues the attack on EPA, glossing over the fact that the agency is following existing statutory mandates. “Under the Obama Administration, EPA continues to strangle economic growth in this country with its overreaching and arbitrary regulatory regime,” Mica said. Yet recent evidence shows the exact opposite to be the case. Clearly, this bill is less about preserving the role of states under the CWA and more about advancing the Obama and EPA blame game.

So why strip EPA of oversight authority explicitly granted by the CWA? The mining industry, predictably, supports the bill. Earthjustice staff attorney Jennifer Chavez anticipates that if the bill is adopted, “states will have a race to the bottom in order to attract business interests, loosening environmental regulations when it comes to clean water,” according to BNA news service (subscription required). “That is exactly what Congress meant to avoid when it adopted the Clean Water Act.”

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