By Sydney Mineer
The Environmental Protection Agency’s new Waters of the US Rule (renamed Clean Water Rule) was heavily criticized by state and local officials Tuesday at a hearing in front of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.
The proposed rule, which received over a million public comments, redefines “waters of the US” under the Clean Water Act . Passed in 1972, the Clean Water Act aims at maintaining the integrity of water sources in the US by protecting it from pollution. The rule would expand the EPA’s regulatory jurisdiction to include various streams and wetlands.
The two panels of witnesses expressed concerns about the clarity of the new rule and the economic ramifications it would have on both states and farmers. Some panelists also expressed concern about the EPA’s transparency in creating the act.
Committee Chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS), asserted that he, too, shared the witnesses’ concerns.
“I find it particularly troubling that despite the unanimous outcry from a broad coalition of stakeholders and industries that have voiced concern about the manner and process by which EPA advanced this proposed rule– the EPA continues to plunge ahead,” Roberts said.
Sen. Roberts also expressed concerns about the economic impact the rule would have on farmers and state governments.
“Given the economic impact this proposed rule will likely impose on farmers, ranchers, and rural businesses,” Roberts said, “I have significant concerns about the Administration’s cost-benefit analysis for this rule.”
Leslie Rutledge, Attorney General for the state of Arkansas, noted that the proposed rule would result in devastating economic consequences and hinder daily farming practices in her state.
“I hold not a copy of War and Peace, not a copy the Good Book, but the proposed rule.” Rutledge said, raising a copy of the EPA’s act. Rutledge asserted that if the act went into effect, it would force farmers to seek legal counsel just to filter through the rule before they could make any basic decision about their land.
Beyond the clarity of the rule, witnesses expressed concerns about its economic costs and impacts.
Rutledge noted that agriculture generates $20 billion annually for Arkansas and in 2012, one in six jobs in the state were in the agricultural field.
“The economic impact [of the act] would be devastating to Arkansas,” Rutledge said.
Dr. Donald van der Vaart, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resource, stated that agriculture generates $78 billion in North Carolina and accounts for 16% of the state’s workforce.
“The federal overreach will stifle economic growth,” van der Vaart said.
Susan Metzger, Assistant Secretary of the Kansas Department of Agriculture, stated that Kansas has made improvements to water quality in the state on their own, and that the definitions of the “waters of the US” provided by the EPA will negatively affect farmers.
“A nationally defined, one size fits all, definition for terms like tributaries is not appropriate given the scarcity of flow in Western States such as Kansas,” Metzger said, “and the inherent variability of those streams to impact downstream waters.”
Though the other members of the first panel were against the rule, Josh Baldi, the regional director of the Washington State Department of Ecology, found the rule to be similar to the practices that have already been implemented in his state.
“The approach embodied in the EPA and [Army Corps of Engineers’] proposed rule adheres closely to the system Washington State has had in place for more than 25 years,” Baldi said. “It is an approach that has worked for people, farms and fish, and we believe Washington State’s approach can be strengthened by the proposed rule.”
Baldi acknowledged that the language in the rule concerning ditches is unclear, however, he believes that effectively narrows which ditches are not jurisdictional, such as those excavated in and draining only uplands.
The witnesses from the hearing’s second panel were overwhelming against the rule.
Jeff Metz, owner and operator of Metz Land and Cattle Co. in Angora, Nebraska, was concerned about the costs of obtaining new permits under the rule and the affect the permit process will have on his daily operations.
“It appears that I will now need a federal permit in order to plow, apply fertilizer or pesticides, graze cattle or even build a fence in these areas or even around them,” Metz said. “A federal permit that will cost me time, money and that the federal government is under no obligation to even give me.”
After reading off an extensive list of negative comments made by several of the witnesses in their testimonies, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) criticized the rule and the EPA’s overreach.
“This is just a very, very wrong-headed move.” Thune said. “The rule excessively expands jurisdictional authority and due to a lack of clarity, creates opportunities for all kinds of unintended consequences to plague the forest resector and other sectors of our economy for years to come.”
We suggest the EPA and the Corps of Engineers reconsider,” Roberts said to conclude the hearing. “I certainly hope this administration and the EPA listen to the vast majority of stakeholders and the views that have been expressed here today.”