EPA eyes spring for Clean Water rule, unsure on replacing measure on farm exemptions

By Philip Brasher

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FAIRFAX, Va., Dec. 16, 2014 - Despite stiff opposition from congressional Republicans, EPA is moving ahead with plans to finalize its proposed Clean Water Act rule by this spring, Administrator Gina McCarthy said today.

“We want to be informed by what people said to us during the comment process as well as what we heard in our 100-plus meetings with different stakeholders,” she told reporters. “So, we have a lot of work to do, but we're certain that we can get that done in a timely way.”

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McCarthy said the agency hasn't decided whether to replace a separate measure, an interpretive rule that provides standards for farming practices that are exempt from the pollution law's Section 404 permitting requirements. The fiscal 2015 omnibus spending bill that cleared Congress last weekend will strike down the interpretive rule, which was opposed both by farm groups and environmentalists.

“We haven't even had that discussion” about whether to replace the interpretive rule, “but I want to make sure that we listen to the agriculture community about how we provide advice in a way that it's understood and it adds value,” McCarthy said. “The interpretive rule clearly didn't make that mark even though it was well intended by USDA and EPA. Congress heard that and I heard that as well. “

The spending bill is silent on the bigger, politically charged issue of the proposed rule that would re-define what areas are regulated under the Clean Water Act as “waters of the United States.” Republicans have made clear that they will attempt to block the rule when they take control of the Senate next year. There is already broad support in the House for killing the measure.

McCarthy made the remarks after appearing at a news conference with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to promote a new pollution-credit trading system in Virginia. Under the plan, the Virginia Department of Transportation buys pollution-reduction credits from farmers to lower the cost of phosphorus-containment work on road projects. The program is designed to reduce phosphorus runoff into the Chesapeake Bay.

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John Harrison, a cattle producer near Appomattox, Virginia, said the payments he'll receive for taking 100 acres of land out of production will help keep the farm in his family. Trees were planted on the land to prevent runoff.

EPA is encouraging other states to begin similar programs and is expected to issue guidelines next year. The eventual goal of the effort is to entice private investors to buy the credits.

The guidelines will provide a “big signal to everybody that if it worked here and EPA liked it, then send it somewhere else and EPA will like it there as well," McCarthy said.

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