E&E News: Bipartisan anger rains down on CWA proposal at House hearing
House Republicans and Democrats voiced concerns to the Department of Agriculture's top environmental official today about an interpretive rule that they say is confusing, is risky and lacks input from the agriculture community.
The rule -- a result of a memorandum of understanding among USDA, U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers -- lists 56 conservation practices that growers and ranchers can undertake to avoid being regulated under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act that requires permits for discharges into streams, rivers and wetlands.
Speaking to the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry, USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie said the rule would simply clarify which practices are exempt from permitting and add actions approved by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. The practices, which range from crop rotation to creating passages for animals to cross streams, would not be legally enforceable, he said.
"The April 3rd interpretive rule streamlines the regulatory landscape," he said.
For example, North Carolina farmers who want to do a stream-channel restoration could do so without going through a notification or permitting.
"What we try to do is provide clarity that these 56 practices are exempt, so that landowners can move forward under the Clean Water Act without having to seek a permit," he said.
But lawmakers disagreed.
"It's not voluntary. You keep saying that, it's wrong," said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.). "There's nothing voluntary about getting your butt sued." Schrader called the rule a "nightmare" for farmers.
There was little support for the interpretive rule on either side of the aisle, as lawmakers said the process locked out input from those who would be affected.
"The farmers in my district do care a great deal about the environment," said Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.). "But I think the concerns of your hearing relate to the level of engagement in the process."
The rule is a complement to a proposed rule promulgated by EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers that would expand the definition of "waters of the United States," the surface water that is eligible for protection under the act. Bonnie limited his remarks to the interpretive rule specifically, not the larger proposal.
Instead of clarifying the Clean Water Act, the proposal imposes a "new set of government regulatory standards that farmers and ranchers must now meet," said subcommittee Chairman Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.).
Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), ranking member of the full Agriculture Committee, expressed concerns that there would not be consistency in implementing the rule between states.
"The [Army] Corps in Omaha has a whole different perspective than the corps in St. Paul," he said.
Bonnie responded that NRCS would make a "commitment" to consistency.
Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) said the rule could backfire and remove farmer incentives to implement good stewardship practices.
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