House Republicans Wage War on Clean Water

Back in 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act with overwhelmingly bipartisan support in both houses. Even today, this bedrock environmental safeguard enjoys the continued support of Americans, in poll after poll, regardless of political persuasion.

Yet some members of Congress seem to have lost sight of the fact that clean water matters. And House Republicans this week are waging a war on water, attempting to push through several bills in committee that attack clean water protections and open the door for polluters—including mountaintop removal mining operations—to dump waste into rivers, streams and other water bodies all over the country.

One dirty water bill, H.R. 5078, sponsored by Representative Southerland, would kill a commonsense proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect streams and wetlands, many of which feed into drinking water supplies. Court decisions have cast doubt over whether those waters are protected, and the clean water proposal would simply make clear that the Clean Water Act applies, as it long had before the court rulings. If anything, the EPA’s proposal needs to be strengthened to better protect water bodies that connect to larger waterways downstream. 

House members, industry groups, and the conservative media have released a wave of phony allegations about the EPA’s proposed safeguards. In particular, these misleading attacks have targeted farmers, scaring them with allegations that the proposal would allow the government to regulate raindrops “coming off the brim of your hat,” and calling it “the biggest land grab in the history of mankind.” One writer solemnly declared the rule “may as well be written in farmers’ blood.”  The American Farm Bureau Federation urged its supporters to send Twitter messages saying that the clean water rule “gives the fed gov control over all farming & land use.”

These Onion-worthy accusations are just plain silly. But dangerously so, if they go unchallenged.

My NRDC colleagues stepped up to the plate, challenging the Farm Bureau to an open, honest, public debate about these protections, with a mutually-agreed-upon moderator. The bureau ducked the challenge, obviously preferring to sling outlandish accusations from cyberspace. Yesterday, we sent another letter to the bureau, renewing the challenge

Another dirty water bill, H.R. 4854, sponsored by Representative Gibbs, before the House committee today would make it more difficult for EPA to block some of the projects most damaging to our waters. The bill is clearly meant to attack EPA’s actions with respect to two extraordinarily destructive projects; the first is the Spruce Mine, a massive mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia that the Army Corps permitted and that would have buried more than six miles of Appalachian streams under mining waste. Fortunately, EPA blocked the project and its action has been upheld in court. The bill would prevent such a rescue from ever happening again.

The other project that prompted this bill is the disastrous proposed Pebble Mine, which threatens Alaska’s vital Bristol Bay watershed, the richest salmon habitat in the world.  The EPA is in the process of deciding whether the mine is so inherently destructive that it ought to be rejected before it has officially applied for a permit. This bill would short-circuit that review and leave the threat of the Pebble Mine in place. Reviewing projects like the Spruce Mine and the Pebble Mine is hardly an example of the EPA running amok. Indeed, the specific legal authority at issue is one the agency has used responsibly and sparingly – only 13 times since the Clean Water Act was enacted – but those instances have been vital to protecting waters.

Yet another bill, H.R. 5077 from Representative Capito, would, among other things, set tight deadlines for actions on water pollution discharge permits, including permits issued by states. The bill would make approval automatic when a deadline is missed. This is just a way to ram more projects through to approval without appropriate review.

Together, these bills amount to a frontal assault on the Clean Water Act – because the law has worked.

Clean water protections safeguard our drinking water supply and keep our waters safe for fishing, swimming and recreation. The proposed clean water rule alone, which polluters and their allies are trying so hard to vilify (and which Representative Southerland’s bill would kill), would protect drinking water supplies for 117 million people, and preserve wetlands that help save up to $30 billion each year in flood damage repair costs.

The war on water won’t necessarily even stop at these three bills; committee members may introduce amendments that will make them even worse. One idea would basically send clean water protection back to the states, which are inherently limited in their ability to control pollution in waters that flow across state lines, which have major budgetary challenges of their own, and which are often limited in their ability to protect their own water bodies beyond federal minimum requirements. The whole reason we have a Clean Water Act is because state-based control wasn’t working; it couldn’t work without a partnership with the federal government. 

Congress needs to stand up against polluters and vote down these three dirty water bills. Americans have a right to clean water, and our elected officials need to respect it.