Senate Energy and Water Bill Not As Non-Controversial as Claimed

The Senate is attempting to pass the first appropriations bill of the year—the FY17 Energy and Water Appropriations Act. Until the recent controversy about Sen. Cotton’s amendment to prevent the purchase of heavy water from Iran for research purposes, the bill itself had widely been termed “non-controversial”. And compared to House appropriation bills that are typically loaded down with a host of controversial policy riders, this bill has largely skirted those contentious issues and been supported by both parties. However, despite the veneer of being “non-controversial” that bipartisanship suggests, a closer read shows the base bill itselfwhile not as chock full as the House bill—still contains some very troubling provisions.

Radioactive Materials © Samat Jain, used CC BY-SA 2.0.

For example, the bill contains a provision that authorizes a new pilot program to allow the Department of Energy to store nuclear waste at private facilities licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This is an unwise approach to one of the most contentious issues of American politics—nuclear waste—without any of the comprehensive work necessary for a full reform of the nation’s nuclear waste laws. Simply, this provision removes meaningful motivation and impetus for adherence to the long standing principle that the nation’s nuclear waste must be buried in deep geologic repositories, permanently isolated from the human and natural environments. We urge the controversial provision be removed.

The bill also contains a provision that would prohibit the Army Corps of Engineers from changing the definition of “fill material” and “discharge of fill material,” even though the existing definitions authorize harmful waste disposal in protected waters. This definition is important as it currently allows companies engaged in mountaintop removal mining to dump waste materials in mountain streams, leading to polluted waters for downstream communities. 

NRDC and several other environmental organizations recently sent a letter highlighting these problems

In another Congressional era, one without the constant attacks against bedrock environmental laws, these provisions may have garnered more attention and debate, but in today’s combative Congress, where every bill is turned into a political cudgel these will slide by as “non-controversial”. That’s a shame because these provisions will clearly be troubling for the States potentially on the hook for hosting nuclear waste, or that live downstream from mountaintop removal operations and Congress shouldn’t lose sight of those consequences.

While it’s heartening to see a bill without dozens of riders targeting bedrock environmental laws and standards—appropriations bills are no place to enact complicated and controversial policy and these provisions should be removed.

About the Authors

Marc Boom

Associate Director, Government Affairs

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