Senators introduce bill to repeal controversial WOTUS rule

By Spencer Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, April 30, 2015 - A bipartisan group of Senators has introduced a bill calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to start over on its divisive waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, defying a veto threat issued by the White House on similar House legislation.

The legislation - dubbed the Federal Water Quality Protection Act - has the backing of more than 90 farm organizations and a bipartisan group of geographically diverse senators.

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The bill would require the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to issue a revised WOTUS rule that excludes “things such as isolated ponds, ditches, agriculture water, storm water, groundwater, floodwater, municipal water supply systems, wastewater management systems, and streams without enough flow to carry pollutants to navigable waters,” according to a release from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The bill calls on EPA to produce the new proposal by December 2016, the final full month of the Obama administration.

“This is something both parties can get behind by focusing on common-sense principles to shape a final rule and requiring straightforward procedures the EPA skipped the first time,” Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., one of the bill's cosponsors, said today at a news conference announcing the bill's introduction.

“It simply asks the EPA to take into account the feedback they have already received and go back and do the research and analysis that wasn't done the first time. It isn't designed to destroy or delay the rule indefinitely. In fact, our bill asks the EPA not to put off this important work.”

The proposed WOTUS rule has drawn fire ever since it was introduced. Critics call it a power-grab by the EPA by trying to exert control over bodies of water never meant to be controlled by the Clean Water Act. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said an apparent rebranding effort by the EPA - changing the name from WOTUS to the Clean Water Rule - is insufficient.

“Merely changing the name of the rule is not enough, and providing empty assurances is not enough,” Roberts told reporters. “If you want to protect clean water, it is time for this administration and the EPA to listen, withdraw the rule, start the process over again, and in a matter that allows for meaningful public input and consultation with state partners who are ready and waiting to work with the EPA.”

Senators at the press conference said the legislative branch needs to step in when a federal agency overreaches on existing law.

“I believe that this is an effort for Congress to do what Congress ought to do when we have this kind of controversy,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said. “Congress not only, I think, has to intervene, it must intervene because of the interest in our states and the concern of so many of the citizens, especially in farm country.”

Agricultural groups notoriously opposed to WOTUS were quick to offer their support for the bill. In separate releases, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) applauded Donnelly and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., for introducing the bill.

NCBA President Philip Ellis said the fact that EPA has submitted its version of the final rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review is problematic, raising concerns about how much attention was paid to comments submitted about the proposal.

“Finalizing the rule only six months after receiving over 1 million comments sends a clear message that EPA has no intention of listening to the broad array of stakeholders and is pushing forward with a problematic rule,” Ellis said in a statement.

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AFBF President Bob Stallman said the EPA must do a better job of considering the far-reaching impacts of the proposed rule.

“Tens of thousands of farmers, ranchers and land owners have spoken out, but EPA has yet to fully acknowledge the proposal's potential impact on everyday farming activities,” Stallman said in a statement.

Jon Devine, an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council, said the senators' bill “passes judgment on the Clean Water Rule prematurely.”

“The (EPA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have not even issued a final rule to protect such waterways and have publicly committed to address the more than 1 million public comments on the proposal,” Devine said in a statement, adding that a final rule is expected “before summer.” “It's high time to clarify which water bodies are entitled to pollution protection under Clean Water Act. It's time to protect all our rivers, streams and wetlands.''

Several senators at the press conference referred to the new bill as “moderate,” hoping to attract bipartisan support should the bill make it to the Senate floor. In a recent test vote, only six Democratic senators supported repealing WOTUS. Heitkamp said expects more support now that the bill has been introduced, adding that her colleagues have been “waiting to see what this bill looks like.”

“I think it is a bill that can be advanced and we can get enough support for. Is it going to be the final product? No one can say that,” Heitkamp said. “But I think that the way this bill has been written and advanced in a bipartisan way with compromises already built in during the negotiation that we had when we were writing it, I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised and able to step forward.”

In the House of Representatives, an Energy and Water appropriations measure would stop the WOTUS from being implemented starting Oct. 1.  In addition, a standalone repeal bill (H.R. 1732) was reported to the full House out of the Rules Committee Wednesday.

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