Lawmakers clash over ‘mythical’ EPA water rule

Members of the House and Senate clashed Wednesday over a proposed Environmental Protection Agency regulation that Republicans said would enormously expand the federal government’s jurisdiction.

While the GOP sounded alarm bells over the impact on farmers and developers if they have to apply for EPA permits for digging ditches or using pesticides, Democrats maintained that their colleagues were misrepresenting the EPA’s proposal and arguing over a “mythical” rule.

“I take issue with the fact that this proposed rule, if finalized, would significantly expand federal authority under the Clean Water beyond that intended both by the act and by the amendments,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said at the hearing held jointly with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“Agencies can only carry out the authority that Congress gives them,” he said. “They cannot create it unilaterally, and that’s what I believe is happening now.”

“I’m confused, because I think people are arguing against some mythical rule,” countered Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerThe ‘bang for the buck’ theory fueling Trump’s infrastructure plan Kamala Harris endorses Gavin Newsom for California governor Dems face hard choice for State of the Union response MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the panel.

“We don’t want to regulate a puddle, that’s ridiculous,” she said. “We want to regulate a body of water that has pollutants in it, and those pollutants wind up in the drinking water system.”

“We have two hearings going on here,” said Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseOvernight Energy: Zinke grilled on travel, offshore drilling plans | Pruitt says California can't dictate emissions standard | Dems sound off on elephant trophy policy Overnight Energy: Dems probe EPA security contract | GAO expands inquiry into EPA advisory boards | Dems want more time to comment on drilling plan Opioid crisis spurs Medicaid funds push MORE. “One on a mythical rule that would regulate any place where water collects or most any water or any wet place, and doesn’t consult with states and local officials; and then this actual rule, which is in the middle of a very robust, Administrative Procedures Act process with millions of comments and a very active rule-making.”

The EPA proposed the Waters of the United States regulation in March, along with the Army Corps of Engineers, in what they said was an attempt to clarify which streams, ponds, wetlands and other bodies of water fall under federal jurisdiction in the Clean Water Act.

A pair of Supreme Court hearings in recent years made it unclear, and the agencies said that their rule would not only add certainty, but in fact reduce federal jurisdiction.

“We can reduce confusion and transaction costs for the regulated community and the agencies as we move forward with the final rule,” EPA head Gina McCarthy said at the hearing.

Republicans weren’t buying it.

“While the agencies had an opportunity to develop a reasonable rule, they instead chose to write the proposed rule vaguely, in order to give federal regulators free rein to claim federal jurisdiction over most any water or wet area,” said Rep. Bill ShusterWilliam (Bill) Franklin ShusterGOP leaders see finish line on omnibus deal Congress races to finish .2 trillion funding bill Rep. Louise Slaughter dies at 88 MORE (R-Pa.), chairman of the House panel. “If this rule goes into effect, it will open the door for the federal government to regulate just about any place where water collects, and in some cases regulate land use activities.”

The EPA plans to make the rule final this spring.

But McCarthy indicated that the final rule might look different from the proposal, based on input the agency took in.

“We’re looking to provide more clarity on the basis of the comments that we received,” she said.