Federal Spending Bill Completed - What Does It Mean For Water?

I'm sad to report that Congress is poised to adopt -- as part of an enormous funding bill -- a short-term limit on updating environmental safeguards, in order to benefit companies conducting mountaintop removal coal mining.

First, some background.  After months of behind-the-scenes wrangling, the leaders of the House and Senate appropriations committees from both parties recently announced that they’d reached a compromise on a spending bill to run the federal government through the end of September.  You’ll recall that House Republicans, acting at the behest of the Tea Party wing of their party, refused to pass such a bill last fall, shutting down the government.  After that strategy proved to be wildly unpopular – turns out people like scientific research, rigorous implementation of health and safety standards, and national parks – Republican leaders vowed not to repeat the debacle, and committed to producing a spending package by today.  That commitment led to the bill that will be voted on this week.

NRDC’s overall take on the bill is that it is a step forward.  Funding that had been cut under the ham-handed “sequester” (automatic, across-the-board cuts that took effect in the fall of 2012 when Congress failed to reach an agreement on how to reduce the budget deficit) has been restored to a number of key programs.  And, this bill helpfully rejects a proposal by President Obama to eliminate funding to coastal and Great Lakes states to monitor their beaches and notify the public about contamination by bacteria, viruses, and other things that can make people sick when they swim.

However, the bill also contains a number of wrongheaded attacks on environmental safeguards.  In the water world, the most egregious one would prohibit the government from working to change water pollution requirements adopted by the Bush administration that authorized the Army Corps to permit companies to discharge anything that raises the bottom elevation of a water body (except trash or garbage).  That action, adopted in 2002, made it so that the Corps can issue permits to allow companies not only to fill these waters for development purposes, but also to fill waterways primarily to get rid of waste – a practice that was previously prohibited.   

As such, the requirement that the spending bill would prevent the government from changing benefitted companies mining coal in Appalachia by mountaintop removal, a practice in which companies commonly shear off the tops of mountains and dump the waste in nearby valley streams.  Thus, this rider sends the exact wrong message – our leaders should be working to end the use of waterways as waste dumps rather than propping up irresponsible practices like mountaintop removal coal mining that create mammoth amounts of waste.  Obviously, we oppose this limitation on the government’s authority to correct a glaring misinterpretation of the law carried out at the behest of polluting industry and we will advocate for Congress not to include this provision again in the next funding bill.