Roberts says EPA 'stacked the deck' on WOTUS comments

By Whitney Forman-Cook

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 21, 2015 - Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., used a nomination hearing today to sound off on what he said were EPA's “questionable activities” surrounding the proposed Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule.

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Roberts told Jeffrey Prieto, President Obama's nominee to be USDA's general counsel, that the proposed rule would harm U.S. agriculture, which USDA has the responsibility to protect. What's more, Roberts said he believes EPA broke federal law when it “manipulated and influenced” the outcome of the rule's public comment period, which should trouble any attorney.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testified before Congress in March that 87.1 percent of the approximately 1 million public comments her agency received on the WOTUS rule were supportive. Roberts suggested McCarthy may have been bending the truth.

“Given what has come to light in recent days, I find (her) statement to be completely disingenuous and automatically discredits EPA's objectivity through every facet of the rule-making process to date.”

Roberts said his committee has heard directly from farmers and ranchers from across the country who made “clear that this (WOTUS rule) was the wrong approach and the wrong rule for agriculture and rural America and small communities.” His voice rising, the ex-Marine at one point said, “as you can tell, I'm pretty upset about it.”

“We now know that EPA stacked the deck against them. Rather than listening to public comments from our agriculture constituents, it appears that EPA has orchestrated a political grassroots lobbying campaign with environmental groups to manipulate the process and disregard legitimate concerns from rural America.”

Preito, who is currently USDA's acting general counsel, told the committee that the department has “a very robust role” to play in the review of matters under the purview of other agencies that affect agriculture, like EPA's proposed rule. In the WOTUS situation, USDA “would serve in a counseling role,” he said, one that “ensures the interests of the agriculture community are embodied.”

Roberts seemed pleased with Preito's response, but also made a threat. Make sure “USDA follows the law, and not in the footsteps of the EPA,” he said, “because this committee has the oversight and responsibility and we will be watching.”

The proposed WOTUS rule is aimed at updating which waters of the U.S. can be regulated by the federal government under the Clean Water Act. The final rule is expected to be released soon.

A spokeswoman for EPA did not respond directly to Roberts' charges. However, she directed Agri-Pulse to a response the agency made to similar allegations by critics in a New York Times story.

“After releasing the proposed Clean Water Rule in March 2014,” the agency's response went, “EPA conducted an unprecedented outreach effort that included holding more than 400 meetings across the country and visiting farms in nine states.” This outreach effort “is well within the appropriate bounds of the agency's mission to educate and engage Americans.”

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