Clean Water Act Under Fire

On July 13, the “Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011” passed with a 239-184 vote in the House and it has since made its way to the Senate. The bill, aimed at reining in U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations seen by many conservatives as overly restrictive and threatening to job creation, gives individual states the final say with regards to regulating toxic chemicals from mining and other projects that have an effect on local watersheds and water supplies.

EPA detractors applaud the bill, adopting a pro-states’ rights stance in the face of what they label as an overreaching government bureaucracy. These supporters of what environmental groups have dubbed the “Dirty Water Act”—including Ron Paul (R-Tex.), Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), 36 other Republicans and Democrats Jason Altmire (D-Penn.), Tim Holden (D-Penn.) and Nick Rahall (D-WV) say that states are less likely to put regulatory pressure on mining companies—including producers of coal, natural gas and oil—which they contend will lead to job creation.

But profits for those companies are already skyrocketing, despite high unemployment and what Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) terms the EPA’s “regulatory regime.” The new rules would drastically limit the EPA’s ability to upgrade pollutant standards, updates that set the baseline for how those substances are regulated and controlled, including for fertilizers that have led to dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico. The EPA would also no longer be able to veto state-issued permits, even if they violate Clean Water Act standards. Essentially, the Clean Water Act would only apply at the discretion of state officials issuing those permits, with no way for the federal government to enforce federal law. Meanwhile, corporate polluters could contaminate rivers and streams in exchange for the vague promise of job creation.

The “Dirty Water Act” comes at the heels of an effort to repeal light bulb efficiency standards passed by Congress in 2007 and signed by President George W. Bush, which supporters said would save energy and money for consumers and critics said would lead to the end of the traditional incandescent light bulb. It is also pertinent in the wake of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on American Electric Power Company v. Connecticut that complicates regulating greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

Unlike H.R. 2018, however, this decision, made with conservative justices in the majority and supported by conservative politicians, actually limits state power by preventing states from enacting laws that cover issues already under the jurisdiction of the EPA, even if the EPA isn’t enforcing its own rules. A cap-and-trade law, for example, cannot be enacted at the state level as per American Electric Power Company v. Connecticut because it may represent a legal conflict with the federal agency’s responsibilities even while no federal cap-and-trade law exists. The reasoning of conservative members of the Supreme Court therefore represents an opposing philosophical approach to environmental regulation than the “Dirty Water Act,” but both appear to make such regulation more difficult and may halt environmental efforts at both the state and federal levels.