Proposal to Clarify Clean Water Act Puts McCarthy on Hot Seat

When Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy testified at the House Appropriations subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies today, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) made it clear from the start that he would be at odds with her.

“For years, it seems the EPA has worked hard to devise new regulations that are designed to eliminate coal mining, coal burning, usage of coal, period,” said Rogers. “The nation needs this inexpensive electricity that comes from burning coal. You’re going to have to have it. There’s not enough wind nor sun nor nuclear or natural gas or anything else that can produce the power that’s already in place by burning coal.”

But much of the questioning throughout the hearing focused on the proposed rule to clarify protection under the Clean Water Act for streams and wetlands, which was released on Mar. 25. Rogers called it “the biggest land grab in the history of any governmental agency in the history of mankind, really.”

“We’re not expanding the types of waters that we have traditionally and historically been regulating,” McCarthy stated. “One of the reasons why we made the switch from a guidance to a proposal is to try to better define the waters that are non-jurisdictional and to be much clearer about what is jurisdictional. And there are seasonal streams where the science is telling us that they’re very important to maintain the integrity of navigable waters, which is what the Supreme Court in unanimity told us in 1985 was the purpose of our act.”

Determining Clean Water Act protection for streams and wetlands became confusing and complex following Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006. For nearly a decade, members of Congress, state and local officials, industry, agriculture, environmental groups, and the public asked for a rulemaking to provide clarity. The proposed rule clarifies this protection, and the definitions of waters will apply to all Clean Water Act programs.

When questioned about the coal ash spill in North Carolina, McCarthy responded, ”We’re not just trying to respond to a spill, we’re trying to understand what tools are available for us to prevent that from happening.”

Rep. David G. Valadao (R-Calif.) asked McCarthy how the EPA was educating the public that hydraulic fracturing is safe, creates jobs, and has lowered American energy costs. McCarthy responded, “Our goal is to make sure that it’s consistent and it’s done safe and effectively so it remains an environmental win as well.”

Several committee members mentioned concern about cuts to the EPA’s budget. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) stated, “This budget request seems to indicate that EPA doesn’t fully value the importance of its own work in the everyday lives of Americans.” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) noted that the number of fulltime employees was lower now than at any time since the 1980s.

“This budget meets the challenges of domestic spending constraints while still fulfilling our mission to protect public health and the environment,” McCarthy said.

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)