The Clean Water Act is not under attack


Author:  Damien M. Schiff

Sed contra: Waterkeeper Alliance's Marc Yaggi.  Mr. Yaggi contends that Congress is trying to dismantle the Clean Water Act by (1) allowing the states to set their own water quality standards, (2) exempting aerial pesticide spraying from the Act's permitting requirement, and (3) exempting stormwater runoff from forest roads from permitting.  In my view, to call these modest amendments an attack on the Clean Water Act is hyperbole.


(1) No one is saying that the nation's waters should not be protected from pollution, or that we shouldn't have standards whereby we can measure progress toward clean water.  Rather, what is at issue is a classic federalism debate:  is this a matter better done at the federal level by a single agency in Washington, D.C., or would more sensible and sensitive regulation be developed closer to where the waters are located?  Reasonable minds can differ on the answer, but forbidding EPA to set water quality standards for a state is a far cry from eliminating pollution-control regulation.

(2) Pesticides are already heavily regulated under a host of laws, including the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).  Thus, eliminating the need to get a Clean Water Act permit for aerial pesticide spraying is not the equivalent of saying, "Let's spray willy nilly to the winds and damn the consequences!"  Quite the contrary.  Elimination of the Clean Water Act permitting process may be simply a streamlining of otherwise duplicative regulation.  Advocating such a position certainly could not, categorically, be deemed a gutting of the Clean Water Act.

(3) EPA has for many, many years declined to regulate stormwater runoff from forest roads.  Recently, the Ninth Circuit has rejected that interpretation; the matter will soon be presented to the Supreme Court.  Suffice it to say, reasonable minds can differ here too about the best way to deal with stormwater pollution.  But it would be hyperbole indeed to consider the restoration of EPA's age-old exemption an attack on the Clean Water Act.

Let me be clear.  Neither I nor PLF has any opinion on whether these possible amendments are good, bad, or anything else.  But what is clear is that the environmental community considers any reduction in environmental regulation to be bad, always.  That's certainly not a position I share.