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U.S. House votes to end EPA water pollution oversight

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fueled by coal industry complaints about the Obama administration's crackdown on mountaintop removal, legislation passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday that would strip federal regulators of their authority to make state agencies properly police water pollution.

House members approved the legislation by a vote of 239 to 184.

The legislation faces an uncertain future in the Senate, and a veto threat from the White House, but its approval by the House provides a symbolic victory for critics of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"The reality is that the agency is strong-arming the states," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va. "Rather than bringing the sides together and bringing balance, they have widened the divide."

Rahall, ranking Democrat on the House Committee Transportation and Infrastructure, joined with committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., to push legislation they dubbed the "Clean Water Act Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011."

Mica and Rahall found common ground in their anger with EPA: Rahall over the mountaintop removal crackdown and Mica over federal efforts to force greater cuts in nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from Florida farms and other businesses. West Virginia Reps. Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley, both Republicans, were co-sponsors.

The legislation would stop EPA from rejecting Clean Water Act "dredge-and-fill" permits approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as EPA did earlier this year with the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history.

But the bill goes much farther than that. It would block EPA from stepping in if states write water quality standards federal scientists believe are too weak. EPA would no longer be able to withdraw federal approval of state water pollution regulatory programs, and would be stripped of authority to object to water pollution discharge permits issued by state agencies.

In a report issued Tuesday, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said although lawmakers have considered minor changes to particular regulatory programs before, "it is highly unusual for Congress to advance legislation that would broadly alter the federal-state partnership in order to address dissatisfaction with specific actions by EPA or another agency."

During floor debate Wednesday afternoon, backers of the legislation spoke of EPA "usurping" what they said was legal authority of states without federal interference how to protect their rivers and streams.

"EPA just has to get back to a more collaborative role," said Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio.

Opponents, though, said the Clean Water Act was passed 40 years ago in large part because federal oversight was needed because state agencies did little to regulate powerful and polluting industries.

"This bill is absurd," said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. "It is designed to totally gut the Clean Water Act."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce voiced its support for the legislation and the National Mining Association said it "upholds the validity of state-approved permits in the face of EPA's arbitrary decisions to void them." Meanwhile, national and regional environmental groups have spent weeks trying to drum up opposition to the measure.

"Congress continues to insist that states protect their own water sources, but history has shown us that without federal oversight states let their rives burn, their lakes become dumping grounds for industrial waste and their streams die," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for the group Earthjustice.

Wednesday' vote comes as the coal industry's political supporters in Congress continue to hammer away in their efforts to stop EPA from more closely reviewing mining permits and implementing new guidelines aimed at reducing coal pollution.

Prior to introducing their bill, Mica and Rahall staged a two-day hearing in May called "EPA Mining Policies: Assault on Appalachian Jobs." Another anti-EPA hearing in the GOP-controlled House is scheduled for today before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The hearing is called, "EPA's Appalachian Energy Permitorium: Job Killer or Job Creator."

Coal industry officials and coalfield political leaders are furious over EPA's mountaintop removal crackdown, saying it has slowed the issuance of new permits to a trickle and prompted some companies to withdraw applications that haven't been approved.

EPA officials and citizen groups point to a growing body of scientific evidence that shows mountaintop removal is causing serious damage to Appalachian forests and streams, and to newer research that strongly suggests a link between mountaintop removal and adverse health effects.

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., told fellow lawmakers about a new West Virginia University study that found a greater risk of birth defects among residents near mountaintop removal mining operations in Appalachia.

Earlier this week, the coal industry law firm Crowell & Moring issued an apology after four of its lawyers published an Internet client recruitment alert that said the WVU scientists should have considered whether inbreeding was a potential cause of the birth defects.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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