Small businesses are skeptical of the EPA’s ‘trust us’ message

The Environmental Protection Agency is in full Washington-style spin mode, complete with a hashtag campaign, to deny the serious objections raised by farmers and small businesses about the latest EPA power grab – a revision of the “Waters of the United States” rule within the Clean Water Act that expands the reach of government at the expense of small businesses. Unfortunately, the EPA has a credibility problem, and a series of public relations tweets won’t erase it. The agency has a long track record of overreach, and farmers and small business owners are rightly concerned.

In this case, the EPA’s arguments boil down to “trust us.” The agency tells us, don’t worry; they mostly won’t bother about small streams and ponds and ditches, despite the rule’s open-ended wording. This assurance rings hollow from an administration that has produced record levels of red tape. It also doesn’t match up with a common-sense reading of how their proposed rule could be abused by bureaucrats. When it comes to trusting the EPA, no thanks – we’d like those protections in writing, clearly understood and legally binding.

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As Missouri homebuilder Tom Woods testified before the Small Business Committee, “I am a businessman. I need to know the rules. I can’t play a guessing game of ‘is it federally jurisdictional?’ But that’s just what this proposal would force me to do.  Builders would face new, costly delays just waiting for the agencies to determine if a road ditch is a ‘Water of the United States.’ The only winners are the lawyers, as this rule will certainly lead to increased litigation.”

Alan Parks of the Memphis Stone and Gravel Company also testified that “The proposed rule has no clear line on what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out,’ making it very difficult for our industry and other businesses to plan new projects and make hiring decisions. If it is determined development of a site will take too long or cost too much in permitting or mitigation, we won’t move forward. That means a whole host of economic activity in a community will not occur – all of this in the name of protecting a ditch or farm pond.”

The EPA cannot credibly argue that the rule is not an expansion. It simply is. The rule’s vagueness and broadness opens the door to bureaucratic intervention in countless ways. Regardless of the EPA’s statements or even the agency’s current plans, the fact is there’s nothing in the rule they’ve crafted that would prevent bureaucratic interventions that impose new costs, delays, obstructions and permits.

Jack Field, a rancher from Yakima, Washington, testified that “I can tell you that after reading the proposal rule it has the potential to impact every aspect of my operation and others like it by dictating land use activities in Washington state from 2,687 miles away… If the agencies’ goal was actually to provide clarity than they have missed the mark completely, making the status quo worse, not better.”

I’ve urged the EPA and Corps of Engineers to withdraw this rule and comply fully with Regulatory Flexibility Act obligations that Congress put in place to protect small businesses. That would cause the EPA to be more transparent about their actions and more inclusive of the small business community.  But, the reality is that the EPA is a bigger problem than just one rule. That’s why I’ve introduced legislation requiring the EPA to review all regulations before proposing any more, and requiring the approval of Congress on rules that are expensive.

Small businesses are not interested in the EPA’s promises to behave with the new power they’ve claimed. Instead, let’s put our trust in the small business owners, farmers and ranchers who have every reason to protect and care for the resources on their property and who are best positioned to do so without the government’s micromanagement. This time the EPA must be stopped.

Graves has represented Missouri's 6th Congressional District since 2001. he is chairman of the Small Business Committee and sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.