House Committee Launches Most Significant Attack on the Clean Water Act in at Least 15 Years

Not satisfied with merely trying to undo the Clean Air Act, the House of Representatives has now decided to attack the federal Clean Water Act with the introduction of H.R. 2018, which is slated for mark-up tomorrow (Wednesday) in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.  The bill, sponsored by Congressman John Mica of Florida, strips EPA of critical oversight authority that for decades has resulted in improved water quality across the country.  And it’s not just Republicans leading the charge.  Several Democrats, including Representatives Nick Rahall (WV), Jason Altmire (PA) and Tim Holden (PA), have co-sponsored the legislation. 

The bill seems to be a reaction to EPA’s recent important efforts to protect water quality in Florida, West Virginia, and on the Chesapeake Bay.  But its impact is far broader than that.

Also called the “Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011,” H.R 2018 takes “cooperation” to a whole new level by stripping EPA of its ability to protect national water quality without state-by-state approval.  Among other things, the bill:                 

  • Limits EPA’s ability to effectively implement or make necessary improvements to state water quality standards to deal with modern pollution challenges.
  • Prevents EPA from improving numeric criteria for pollutants that have led to dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico. 
  • Restricts EPA from upgrading standards for toxic pollutants where narrative standards only provide very limited protection (a common example being state standards that prohibit the “discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts”).
  • Prevents EPA from vetoing state-issued Clean Water Act permits even if EPA concludes those permits are not protective of water quality.
  • Blocks EPA’s ability to withhold federal funding to states even if EPA determines the state’s implementation of water quality standards is not protective of water quality. 

Basically, H.R. 2018 takes the “federal” out of the federal Clean Water Act and highlights a new disdain for the federal government’s role in environmental protection.  Yet it is this federal law and EPA’s oversight that have resulted in so many improvements to water quality across America since the Clean Water Act’s passage in 1972. 

The federal Clean Water Act provides a safety net for waterways across the country, where states must implement minimum provisions to protect water quality.  States can always do more if they so choose, but the law recognizes that Americans deserve a minimum standard of protection no matter where they live, and the Clean Water Act is designed to prevent a “race to the bottom” in places where the benefits of clean water may be ignored for short term economic or political gain.  

By hamstringing EPA, H.R. 2018 would remove the most critical piece of the puzzle and would take away this safety net. 

Indeed, sponsors of the bill seem intent on taking us back to the “good old days” of limited federal involvement when rivers like the Cuyahoga caught fire and Lake Erie was declared dead – and when states sued other states because pollution flowing from an upstream state ruined a neighboring state’s waterway.  Yet these past horrors and the legislative history of the Clean Water Act reveal why the federal role was and remains so important:  before 1972 many states lacked any approved water quality standards and national efforts to abate and control water pollution were “inadequate in every vital aspect.”

I say this is the worse attack on the Clean Water Act in at least 15 years because it is hard to compare which is worse, the Dirty Water Bill of 1995 or today’s H.R. 2018.  Both contained provisions to paralyze EPA’s Clean Water Act duties – the Dirty Water Act under the guise of cost-benefit analysis, H.R. 2018 under the guise of state’s rights.   But one thing that is easy to see is that H.R. 2018 will undermine almost 40 years of progress in cleaning up America’s waterways, and it will remove America’s most vital safety net for protecting water quality across all 50 states.

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