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David Beckman’s Blog

Time to Stop Attacks on the Clean Water Act and Protect Americans' Top Environmental Priority

David Beckman

Posted June 21, 2011

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To quote Yogi Berra, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”  After spending much of the spring attacking the Clean Air Act, several lawmakers in the House have now set their sights on the Clean Water Act.  This latest onslaught puts lawmakers squarely at odds with the American people, who say in poll after poll that their number one environmental priority is clean water. 

And yet the introduction of H.R. 2018, slated for mark-up tomorrow in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, takes direct aim at the Clean Water Act.  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 (W.Va.), Jason Altmire (PA) and Tim Holden (PA), have co-sponsored the legislation. 

HR 2018 is dirty water bill that would turn the regulatory clock back to a period where rivers actually caught fire and the federal government couldn’t stop it. 

It would deprive Americans of minimum health and environmental standards that apply no matter where you live or travel in the nation.  While states appropriately have a primary role in implementing clean water protections, the law does not function effectively without a federal floor—a  “safety net”—that ensures that people have a minimum level of clean water and safe drinking water regardless of what state they live in.   HR 2018 shreds the safety net by stopping EPA from ensuring adequate standards to protect health and the environment.

At worse, the bill could unleash a 2011 version of an environmental “race to the bottom” that the modern federal Clean Water Act was designed to stop. The bills also punches through a federal floor—a set of minimum standards that protects people in the US no matter where they live—and opens the door to a downward spiral as states are forced to compete against each other, and their better judgment, to lower standards to attract investment or otherwise. 

HR 2018 is an attack on the basic structure of federal environmental laws that have put the nation on a path to a cleaner environment and stronger economy.

This is why NRDC is fighting to protect America’s water:

  • According to a 2009 Gallop Poll, water quality is America’s No. 1 environmental concern, eclipsing all others.   In fact the four top spots in the recent poll asking Americans about their environmental concerns were all water-related.  
  • Clean water promotes a healthy economy.  The nation’s rivers, lakes, bays, wetlands and streams are vital to our health and economy.  For example, in 2004 ocean-related economic activity alone contributed $138 billion dollars to the nation’s economy.  Clean water in general is tied to massive economic output, threatened by HR 2018.   
  • HR 2018 limits the federal government’s ability to ensure that states effectively implement or make necessary improvements to their water quality standards to deal with modern pollution challenges.  Water quality standards are just what they sound like:  they are limits on pollution necessary to keep people who use, enjoy and contact water healthy and the environment itself strong.  Thus, the bill attacks a critical element of the Clean Water Act.  This bill deprives EPA of the tool it used to restore Lake Erie and is now being used to clean up and protect (1) the Florida Everglades, (2) Chesapeake Bay and (3) other waters, including those impacted by mountain-top coal mining.  The bill would also block EPA from objecting to individual permits that fail to comply with water quality standards.
  • HR 2018 blocks EPA’s ability to stop dredge and fill projects that have “unacceptable adverse effect[s] on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas…, wildlife or recreational areas.”  Although this “veto” authority has been used only thirteen times in the past 38 years, it is a critical safeguard against the most destructive proposals—like mountain-top coal mining that destroys streams.
  • HR 2018 prevents the EPA from making scientifically-based upgrades of standards, including for toxic pollutants.  EPA was forced to promulgate water quality standards for a number of states, including California, when those states failed to update their own standards.  Many states have relied on “placeholder” standards that EPA approved pending development of more protective standards; these planned public health upgrades would be threatened.

We tried it the HR 2018 way—it doesn’t work.  The provisions attacked by HR 2018 were put in place in the Clean Water Act specifically to cure a wholesale failure in the national effort to reduce water pollution related to a lack of federal oversight of the nation’s clean water efforts.  Legislative history of the Clean Water Act indicates that without federal backstops, the dog won’t hunt.  A senate committee report from 1971 notes that "the Committee concludes that the national effort to abate and control water pollution has been inadequate in every vital aspect."  The approach referred to in the legislative history of the Act depended on the sort of scheme HR 2018 would resurrect.

I hope that the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee tomorrow soundly rejects this misguided effort.  The bill is not redeemable.  But there will be an opportunity tomorrow to make sure that, at minimum, the bill doesn’t completely gut protections for our waters even if it isn’t killed outright; at a minimum, a positive vote on an amendment to be offered by Representative Tim Bishop would be a step in the right direction.

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Sheda MorshedJun 27 2011 03:06 PM

Thanks for this alarming report, David. What can concerned citizens do at this point? I don't see any action strategies & would like to help spread the word about solutions, if possible.

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