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.