Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bipartisan America's Commitment To Clean Water Act

Apr 21: Representative James Oberstar (D-MN), Chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I), introduced legislation which he said would reaffirm the ability of the Clean Water Act to protect the nation's waters, including wetlands. H.R. 5088, "America's Commitment to Clean Water Act," will restore bedrock protections from water polluters who place families and communities nationwide at risk. Representatives John Dingell (D-MI.) and Vernon Ehlers (R-MI.), who joined Oberstar at a press conference, are original cosponsors of the bill.

    According to a release In 2001 and 2006, two decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court "threw the nation's clean water programs into turmoil, creating confusion and uncertainty for communities, developers, and agricultural interests, and placed at risk the nation's ability to restore, protect, and maintain water quality and the water-related environment. The Supreme Court overruled 30 years of regulatory policy and limited the scope of the waters protected by the Clean Water Act." [Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers in 2001 and Rapanos v. United States in 2006]. Oberstar said his bill restores the Clean Water Act to its pre-2001 status.

    The release indicates that on February 28, the New York Times reported that as a result of the two Supreme Court decisions, companies have spilled oil, carcinogens and dangerous bacteria into lakes, rivers and other waters without being prosecuted. According to the article, EPA regulators working on those cases estimate that more than 1,500 major pollution investigations have been discontinued or shelved in the last four years. Further, data from 2008, the most recent year available, show there were over 20,000 beach closings and advisories that year due to pollution, and studies in the Great Lakes show that as many as 10 percent of beachgoers report getting sick after swimming in beach waters open for swimming.

    Representative Oberstar said, "Turmoil, confusion, and uncertainty are no way to run a program. That is why I developed legislation to restore the common understanding of the scope of the Clean Water Act based on decades-old interpretations of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency. By restoring the common understanding and practice as existed in 2001 of the extent to which the nation's waters and wetlands are protected by the Clean Water Act, we can provide much-needed certainty to the regulated community, and avoid costly litigation over responsibility for protecting clean water."

    Representative Oberstar continued saying, "Opponents of the Clean Water Act argue that the Federal government should not require a permit for everything you do that might affect a wet area. I agree. The Clean Water Act never required such permits, and I do not offer legislation that would do so. Simply put, if it was not regulated before 2001, it will not be regulated with the enactment of my legislation. However, some people have opposed the Clean Water Act for decades, and it should not come as a surprise that these same groups are using recent Supreme Court decisions as justification to roll back protections under the Clean Water Act. On this, I strongly disagree."

    "Clean, safe water is a basic right for all Americans. Yet, unless we act, the Clean Water Act cannot ensure that right," said Oberstar. "Since the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972, Americans have overwhelmingly expressed their support for protecting our nation's waters and keeping them safe from polluters. H.R. 5088 will restore the nation's commitment to clean water and protect the health and safety of all Americans."

    The release indicates that two years ago, the T&I Committee conducted a thorough, day-long hearing that heard from two dozen witnesses on five panels who both supported and opposed prior legislation introduced by Oberstar. He invited suggestions from any and all interested parties. Oberstar said, "The bill that I introduce today is a new bill that responds to comments I heard from witnesses at our hearing and other stakeholders. It more clearly and specifically targets its one objective -- addressing two Supreme Court decisions that I believe were wrongly decided. This bill includes multiple changes to emphasize that it will reaffirm and restore the original scope of the Clean Water Act, and not expand its geographic scope."

    Oberstar's original Clean Water Restoration Act (CWRA) was introduced on May 22, 2007, also with Representatives John Dingell and Vernon Ehlers supporting, and with 150 co-sponsors and endorsements from 300 organizations representing the conservation community, family farmers, fishers, boaters, labor unions and civic associations [See WIMS 5/22/07].

    The substance of the new bill strikes the term "navigable waters" and replaces it with "waters of the United States." And, the bill defines "waters of the United States" to include the current regulatory definition excluding waste treatment systems including treatment ponds or lagoons, and excluding prior converted croplands. Both "waste treatment system" and " prior converted cropland" are also defined.

    Access a release from Representative Oberstar (click here). Access the 11-page H.R. 5088 (click here). Access a fact sheet "What the Bill Actually Does and Does Not"(click here). Access a table comparing the bill to prior legislation (click here). Access a section by section summary (click here). Access a video of the press briefing including statements from supporters (click here). Access the WIMS Special Report on Rapanos and related activities (click here). Access multiple WIMS-eNewsUSA blog posting on the Supreme Court decisions and CWA (click here).

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