Critical Clean Water Protections Approved by Key Senate Committee

Protections Were Jeopardized by Supreme Court Decisions in 2001 and 2006

WASHINGTON (June 18, 2009) -- The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the Clean Water Restoration Act today, a landmark bill that reinstates Clean Water Act protections for a host of water bodies jeopardized by a pair of Supreme Court decisions.

The following is a statement by Jon Devine, Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Water program:

“We are grateful that the Committee has taken this critical step. Congress cannot fix the Clean Water Act soon enough, and today’s action reflects the urgency and importance of the problem.”

“The bill is definitely a compromise, but Senators Baucus, Klobuchar, and Boxer deserve great credit for maintaining the core purpose of the legislation – returning protection to imperiled waters and charting a path forward that responds directly to claims made about the legislation. We will keep working to pass a strong bill through Congress.”

Additional background:

Because of the Supreme Court’s decisions, government officials had declared thousands of bodies of waters – including lakes, streams, and wetlands – outside the purview of the Clean Water Act.  As a result, the people who rely on those water bodies cannot depend on the Act’s safeguards against unregulated industrial pollution and destruction. The Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that these decisions have undermined the agency’s enforcement of the Act. The Obama administration recently told Congress that “[i]t is essential that the Clean Water Act provide broad protection of the Nation’s waters, consistent with full Congressional authority under the Constitution.”

To address this crisis, Sen. Russ Feingold and 24 other Senators sponsored the Clean Water Restoration Act, which would apply clean water protections to the kinds of water bodies historically covered by federal regulations.

The Committee acted today to approve a substitute amendment to the bill championed by Senators Baucus, Klobuchar, and Boxer that adds two exemptions from the law sought by farmers and by wastewater treatment plant operators. It also removes provisions that opponents of comprehensive clean water protections had wrongly suggested expanded the scope of the law, and it specifically directs federal agencies to implement the new law consistent with the historic practice prior to the Supreme Court’s decisions.

The Committee also rejected a number of amendments that would dramatically weaken the bill by exempting certain water bodies from its coverage and by allowing a variety of polluting activities to take place without Clean Water Act scrutiny. Fortunately, the Committee voted down a series of radical amendments from Senator Barrasso, which would have excluded streams, natural ponds, and a variety of other waters from the bill.