WASHINGTON – A bill that would effectively overturn a new Environmental Protection Agency clean water rule won a critical committee vote Wednesday and now appears headed for a decision by the full U.S. Senate.
The clean water rule was EPA’s attempt to re-establish jurisdiction over some remote streams, ditches and wetlands that could be sources of pollution to the nation’s rivers and lakes.
A 2006 Supreme Court decision set the stage for the new rule by requiring the EPA to prove significant connections between potential sources of pollution and major waterways in order to regulate them.
But a bill passed Wednesday by the Environment and Public Works Committee removes much of the EPA’s discretion.
Supporters of the bill, including Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo. and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., characterized the new EPA rule as “regulatory overreach.”
Democrats against the bill, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said it “rips the heart out of the Clean Water Act.”
Late Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. came out in opposition to the Barrasso-Heitkamp bill.
“While I am open to hearing suggestions for making fixes to the EPA rule,” Franken said in a statement to the Star Tribune, “I do not support Sen. Barrasso’s legislation to overturn it. In its current form, Sen. Barrasso’s bill puts too many restrictions on our ability to protect federal waters.”
A spokeswoman for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said the senator did not support the bill.
In a statement to the Star Tribune, Klobuchar said she believed Congress “should continue addressing these issues through the rule-making process,” and that she would “continue pushing the agency to ensure that any future guidance strikes a balance between protecting Minnesota’s waters and being workable for rural communities.”
The agriculture and environmental lobbies in Minnesota and around the country have lobbied furiously over the EPA rule.
Farmers say it could add needless regulation and expense to their operations. Environmental groups say the rule is necessary to regain pollution control over half of the nation’s streams in order to protect drinking water and recreational lakes and rivers.
While Klobuchar and Franken have already heard plenty from farmers and environmentalists about the clean water rule, the committee vote should launch even more aggressive lobbying.
Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said his group had been talking to the senators or their staffs at least once a week, explaining that the clean water rule “goes beyond what Congress and the courts intended” and that clean water goals “should be set by the states.”
Paap welcomed the Environment and Public Works Committee vote. “We’ve been on the same page to ditch this current rule,” he said.
Wednesday’s vote will move environmental groups in favor of keeping the rule “to turn up the heat and talk to more people,” said Lea Griggs, who leads a door-to-door campaign by Environment Minnesota to get state residents to reach out to Klobuchar and Franken.
“We’re in the process of getting 2,000 phone calls to Sen. Klobuchar and delivering 12,500 petitions to her office,” Griggs said.
Paap summed up the pressure on Klobuchar and Franken by the two influential lobbies:
“They’re probably going to get beat up no matter which way they vote.”
Staff writer Allison Sherry contributed to this report.