Committee moves to restrict EPA’s authority to block water permits

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted Wednesday to restrict the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to block permits to dump dredge or fill material into waterways.

The measure would prohibit EPA from revoking a dredge or fill permit after the Army Corps of Engineers grants the permit. EPA would still be able to veto the permit while the Army Corps is considering it.

The legislation came in response to EPA’s decision in 2009 to retroactively block Arch Coal Inc.’s permit to dump into waterways for the proposed Spruce Mine No. 1, a mountaintop-removal mine in West Virginia. The Supreme Court declined to review EPA’s revocation weeks ago.

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“Revoking a permit after it was issued, and when no violation of the permit had occurred, is unsettling,” Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), one of the bill’s sponsors, said at the Wednesday markup. “It simply is unfair. It is an arbitrary and irresponsible way for government to act.”

While the bill received strong Republican support, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the panel’s top Democrat, also supported it, citing the Spruce case’s link to West Virginia.

“The issue the bill seeks to address transcends this particular situation, and indeed, transcends coal mining itself,” Rahall said. “If allowed to stand, this decision will have a chilling effect on virtually every economic development in the United States.”

Democrats warned that the legislation would roll back an important government function.

“Until we see a very good reason why the EPA shouldn’t have this power, to see that it’s been abused, I don’t see why we should come in now and say that EPA can’t do this and revoke this power to protect the environment,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.).

EPA has only used its authority to block such permits 14 times in the 44 years since the Clean Water Act was passed, Nadler said, which “is not an overuse of power, is not an agency swinging its weight.”

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