Dirty Water Actors in Congress

Though I’ve lived here for the better part of two decades, Washington, D.C. remains a bit of a mystery to me.  People here seem to simultaneously have the memory of an elephant and that of my very easily distracted pooch, Quincy.  (Don’t get me started on the attention spans of the other two characters in the picture.)

People in D.C. circles can remember every little detail of meetings held about various pieces of legislation years ago, yet today lawmakers seem bound and determined to re-make dumb decisions of years’ past.  Case in point – although the Newt Gingrich-led Congress in the mid-90s tried in vain to pass the “Dirty Water Act” gutting the Clean Water Act notwithstanding broad public support for that law and the resources it protects, the House this week will vote on a suite of anti-clean water measures that would make Mr. Gingrich blush. (Okay, in light of recent statements, maybe he can't be shamed, but you get my meaning.)

These attacks are part of a bill to fund (or, rather, slash funding) for the government for the remainder of this fiscal year, and are among the numerous assaults on public health and the environment in the legislation.  My colleagues Scott Slesinger and David Goldston have both described the multi-front attack on the environment contained in the bill.  Many of these anti-environmental earmarks have nothing to do with fiscal discipline or budgeting, but instead are sneak attacks on fundamental protections against polluting our water.  Together they paint a bleak picture of what the world would look like if the new Republican leadership in the House could have its way.

So, let’s turn to the bill and to the murderers' row of amendments that have been filed on it:

  • Section 1747 of the bill would halt the Environmental Protection Agency’s ongoing work to clarify which waters remain protected by the Clean Water Act in the wake of confusing court decisions.  EPA estimates that roughly 117 million Americans get at least some drinking water from systems that rely on headwater and other critical streams for all or part of their supply.  Many of those streams are at risk of being denied Clean Water Act protections today.   
  • Section 1475(a) would block implementation of protections under the Endangered Species Act for imperiled fish in the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem, including winter run Chinook salmon, spring run Chinook salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon and delta smelt.  This measure is designed to increase the delivery of water subsidized by federal taxpayers, at the expense of California cities, other farmers, the health of the San Francisco Bay-Delta, and especially the California salmon fishing industry.
  • Section 1475(b) would block the restoration of California’s San Joaquin River – literally drying up the river.  In 2006, NRDC spearheaded an agreement to restore flows and salmon to the second longest river in California, which had been dry for half a decade.  This restoration agreement  was supported by environmentalists, fishermen, farmers, urban water agencies, the Bush Administration, California’s Republican governor and even former Congressman Richard Pombo -- one of the most notoriously anti-environmental members of the House in the past several decades.  This measure would degrade water quality for millions of California residents and farmers, damage salmon restoration efforts, and reduce water supplies.
  • Amendment #216  (submitted by Rep. David McKinley, R-WV) would effectively strip EPA of the authority Congress gave it under the Clean Water Act to prohibit or restrict certain discharges that would have an “unacceptable adverse effect” on our water, fish or wildlife.  EPA has used this authority sparingly – only 13 times since the law was enacted in 1972.  In other words, it is reserved for truly bad projects where the discharger can’t or won’t curtail the impacts to water resources.   This attack is transparently in response to EPA’s “veto” of a mammoth waste dump project associated with a mountaintop removal coal mine in West Virginia that would have buried over 6 miles of streams with mining waste and contaminated downstream waterways, and it would force EPA to ignore the scientific evidence of the harms caused by similarly destructive dumping proposals.  
  • Amendment # 109 (submitted by Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-VA) seeks to shield mountaintop removal coal mining operations from EPA review by stopping EPA and the Corps of Engineers from continuing a process they put in place to scrutinize proposed mines and even suspending the use of an internal EPA memo that explains to agency personnel how the scientific evidence of the harms associated with mountaintop removal projects should be taken into account as EPA reviews permits issued to mine operators by the Corps of Engineers and states.
  • Amendment #230 (submitted by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-VA) would sabotage decades of work by state and federal officials and by concerned citizens, which culminated when EPA released a comprehensive cleanup plan for the Chesapeake Bay watershed in December.  The amendment would prohibit EPA from enforcing this plan if states fail to meet their pollution control commitments and, by doing so, could frustrate the restoration of this national treasure and important fishery.
  • Amendments #219 and #220 (submitted by Rep. Bill Johnson, R-OH) would keep the Office of Surface Mining within the Department of Interior from continuing work to revise regulations adopted in the waning days of the Bush administration that opened up streams to destructive and polluting practices associated with surface coal mining.  The Obama administration, which has acknowledged both substantive and legal flaws with the Bush administration rule, actually needs a kick in the pants on this issue, not a directive to stop work.
  • Amendment # 13 (submitted by Rep. Tom Rooney, R-FL) would keep EPA from implementing a program to clean up Florida waters that are plagued by harmful algae blooms, nasty slime that can produce toxins that can hurt people and animals and that can rob water bodies of the oxygen that fish and other critters need to live.

If adopted, this bill and these amendments would spell disaster for the nation’s water resources.  It is an embarrassment that these ideas will be considered by our representatives this week.  It would be an even greater shame, I think, if responsible Republicans in the House won’t dare to stand up against these dangerous proposals.  One thing that helped do in the Dirty Water Act back in the 90s was that some Republicans bucked their more ideological counterparts and actually did what was best for the country.  Let’s hope that current members' memories can go back that far.