It doesn’t take rocket science to draw a line between pollutants in small streams and wetlands and water quality downstream. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers have united to propose a rule that will strengthen the Clean Water Act, applied to safeguard American water quality since 1972.
The rule will improve protection of the water that one in three Americans rely on to drink. It will apply to over half of America’s streams and 20 million acres of wetlands and will close an increasingly troubling loophole in the law on cooling water permits and oil spill contingency plans, among other impacts.
Polluting industries have led challenges to the Clean Water Act all the way the Supreme Court in 2001 and 2006. Their efforts increased confusion about and complexity within administration of the Act. In September 2013, the EPA moved forward on the issues, releasing a report that makes the scientific case for the rule by demonstrating the vital connection between smaller streams and wetlands and downstream waters. Citizens submitted over 150,000 public comments in support of the findings.
Predictably, oil, gas, and electric utilities, as well as some agriculture, construction, mining, and manufacturing interests, object to the proposed EPA-Army Corps rule. Owners of thousands of miles of fuel pipelines that transect wetlands, factory farms whose manure and fertilizers run off into surface water, and Big Coal, which empties mountaintops into watercourses, oppose the measure.
The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents the interests of independent not-for-profit, member-owned electric generation, transmission, and distribution utilities, has voiced some of their concerns:
“Such an expansion of Clean Water Act rules would have significant impacts on co-ops by increasing the number and costs of permits needed for distribution and transportation corridor construction and maintenance and substations.”
NRECA serves 40 million people (only 12% of the nation’s population) across the US, yet it owns 42% of America’s electric distribution lines, which cover 75% of the country. Paradoxically, the electric cooperatives are more renewable-friendly than the utility sector as a whole (11% vs 8%).
As conservative forces often do, NRECA states its intentions in an apparently environment-friendly way: “to take all appropriate actions to protect the interests of electric cooperatives and their members to ensure that any Clean Water Act requirements allow utilities as much flexibility as possible to meet environmental goals to enhance water quality through scientifically sound, cost-effective methods.” Key words of debate here: “flexibility,” “scientifically sound,” and “cost-effective.”
Environmental interests note that the commonsense clean water rule does not protect any “new” waters not historically covered under the Clean Water Act. Also, it is consistent with the Supreme Court’s narrow readings of Clean Water Act jurisdiction.
Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America, a federation of 29 statewide, citizen-funded environmental advocacy organizations, comments:
“Whether we look back to the recent spill in West Virginia that left 300,000 people without drinking water [followed intensively by PlanetSave] or ahead to the dead zones that will blight Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay this summer, it’s obvious that our waterways are not as clean or safe as we need them to be—-for our drinking water, for recreation, or for the health of our ecosystems and wildlife. Today’s action by the EPA will help ensure that all our waterways get the protection they need so we can enjoy them for years to come.”
“We are clarifying protection for the upstream waters that are absolutely vital to downstream communities. Clean water is essential to every single American, from families who rely on safe places to swim and healthy fish to eat, to farmers who need abundant and reliable sources of water to grow their crops, to hunters and fishermen who depend on healthy waters for recreation and their work, and to businesses that need a steady supply of water for operations.”
The Huffington Post published “Clearer Protections for Clean Water,” an explanatory blog by McCarthy, less than an hour ago.
The rule should help protect American waters from harmful development and previously unchecked pollution by energy companies. The EPA-Army Corps proposal is now under review at the White House Office of Management and Budget, which must approve it before publication in the Federal Register and acceptance of public comments.