Groups jockeying to shape EPA water rule

More than 100 advocates representing dozens of industry groups, companies and environmental organizations are flocking to the White House in a last-ditch effort to influence controversial regulations that would redefine the reach of the federal government’s water pollution enforcement.

The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has in recent days disclosed 16 meetings about the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposal since early April, when the OMB started its final regulatory review of the plan.

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The people lobbying on the rule represented residential developers, utilities, manufacturers, miners, farmers, and environmental and conservation groups, among others.

The meetings are a chance for lobbyists to influence development of the EPA’s contentious “waters of the United States” rule, which the Obama administration plans to make final soon.

Congressional Republicans want the proposal scrapped. They deride the rule as a massive federal overreach that would put the government in charge of puddles, dry creek beds, ditches, man-made ponds, occasionally wet land and other areas that do not need federal water quality standards.

Though many business groups echo that criticism, their participation in the White House meetings signals an effort to help shape the rule’s final language if they can’t stop it altogether.  

“What we were hoping to get out of the meetings is a clear understanding on the part of the White House staff, the EPA and the Corps of Engineers what the practical implications of this expansion would be,” said Jerry Howard, chief executive officer of the National Association of Home Builders.

His group brought construction companies from areas including the Southwest and central Florida to say that expanding federal authority could require federal permits for routine construction activities.

“We brought in people with real-world experience to show what the real-world problems would be,” he said. “It’s a very convoluted process to get a building permit in every jurisdiction in America.”

Farmers and ranchers, meanwhile, are seeking to protect exemptions for agriculture that ensure ditches, ponds and other common agricultural activities are not newly regulated.

On the other side, environmentalists are arguing in favor of the most stringent possible protections for streams, ponds and wetlands to ensure downstream water protection. 

Navis Bermudez, deputy legislative director at the Southern Environmental Law Center, participated in a meeting with other environmental groups to make sure that certain isolated ponds are covered by the rule, which was not clear in the draft proposal.

“We just reiterated to the folks we met with there to make the case that the EPA could go further than they had in their draft rule and there was enough scientific evidence to include these types of waters in waters covered,” she said.

OMB and other administration officials are obligated to take meetings with stakeholders who request them during the review process. Officials representing the administration rarely speak or give any other indications about what will be in the final rule.

The American Forest and Paper Association participated in meetings with other business groups that are worried the EPA’s rule could cover man-made manufacturing ponds at paper mills and elsewhere that are isolated.

“We informed them that water is an important component of our manufacturing process and that mills are very often sighted by water bodies,” Schwartz said. “And that because of these expansive definitions, there’s uncertainty that’s created by the proposed rule, specifically with respect to the waters on our facilities that are not clearly exempt by the wastewater treatment exemption.”

The fight centers on the reach of the Clean Water Act, which sets standards for water quality that apply to navigable waters.

Upstream waterways must be protected to ensure that pollution does not go downstream. But for decades, the federal government has been wrestling with how far to go and what the law allows.

Environmentalists, sportsmen’s groups and conservationists sought to counter businesses’ attacks on the rule and argue that without it, important bodies of water will be at risk.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership brought in local, regional and national sportsmen’s groups to argue that stream headwaters and wetlands support fish, birds and other wildlife that are essential to outdoor recreation and hunting.

Jimmy Hague, director of the group’s Center for Water Resources, said the draft rule was pretty good but could be stronger in protecting wetlands.

“The message going into OMB meetings and our public comments essentially has been ‘good job with the tributaries discussions,’ but when it comes to some of these wetlands the waterfowl depend upon, the science points to a more definitive treatment than what they did in the proposed rule,” he said.

As the OMB met with stakeholders, congressional Republicans and other opponents of the rule worked to undermine it.

In the Senate, opponents are focusing on a bill that would repeal the rule and give the EPA specific instructions and a deadline to rewrite it in a way that protects farmers and ranchers from regulation.

The House passed a bill last week to overturn the regulation and stop the EPA from making it final.