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As controversial EPA water rule looms, GOP prepares an assault

A Western water way
A Western water way McClatchy

While the politics of climate change were at the top of the president’s agenda this week, a different environmental proposal is heading to a showdown between Republicans and the White House, in part due to strong pressure from Kentucky farm interests and lawmakers.

The issue is the proposed “ Waters of the United States” rule, which was announced earlier this year in an attempt to simplify and clarify which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act and which ones aren’t.

But the Obama administration’s attempt at clarity has instead brought anger and confusion from many of the nation’s farm interests, as well as Republicans in Congress – who until last week were powerless to do anything about it.

Now, however, both Kentucky senators are on record with their Republican colleagues in opposing the proposal. The Republican-led House already voted to derail the measure, which comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Friday marked the final day that the public could formally submit comments on the proposed regulation, and the EPA was deluged with more than 250,000 comments as of Friday morning. Now the EPA and the Army Corps will move toward finalizing the rule, something that is expected to happen next year.

But in Congress, newly empowered Republicans are going to try to stop that.

In the Senate, Republicans have agreed with House colleagues on their desire to derail the water proposal, but lacked the votes to do anything about it.

But Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who will assume the job of majority leader in January, now has the control to advance bills similar to one introduced earlier this year that would prohibit the administration from finalizing its water rule.

Although it didn’t go anywhere in the Senate this session, the bill picked up 38 cosponsors, all Republicans. That included McConnell and Kentucky’s other senator, Rand Paul, as well as Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is expected to be the new chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

If the Senate does seek to derail the rule, it could result in a veto showdown with the Obama administration.

Inhofe wrote a piece for an Oklahoma newspaper this week reiterating that the EPA should withdraw the rule. And McConnell, through spokesman Robert Steurer, indicated a desire to rein in the EPA, including through appropriations.

“The leader has cosponsored several measures this Congress that seek to restrain the out-of-control EPA proposed regulations, including WOTUS, but they have been blocked by Senate Democrats,” Steurer said, referring to the “Waters of the U.S.” rule. “Next year, he will support efforts to harness proposals like these by restricting funding to agencies like the EPA through the appropriation process.”

The switch in political power dismays advocates for the rule.

“Now they’re in a position to throw their weight around more,” said Judy Lyons, chairwoman of the Kentucky chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental group. “I am concerned about the change in politics because I think everything from the EPA is now going to be under assault.”

Lyons, from Louisville, Ky., submitted one of the hundreds of thousands of comments on the rule received by the EPA. She urged the agency and Army Corps to finalize the rule so that the protections offered by the Clean Water Act are “strong and clearly enforceable.”

The water rule proposal seeks to clarify what is covered by the Clean Water Act – whether certain streams that dry up part of the year, for example, should be covered along with traditional rivers, streams and lakes.

It’s a reaction, in part, to two U.S. Supreme Court cases that addressed EPA’s water oversight.

The Obama administration and environmental groups have strongly pushed the rule, arguing that it would help keep rivers, lakes and other waterways healthy. But agriculture and other industry groups just as strongly oppose the plan, saying it represents a massive overreach by the federal government that would curtail farm activity.

In Kentucky, organizations from state-level agriculture groups to county-level farm bureaus have submitted comments to the EPA opposing the rule.

The Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation issued an “action alert” urging members to submit comments because the rule “would create confusion rather than clarity” and could “lead to farmers facing increased frivolous litigation over what are considered ‘normal’ agricultural practices.”

The Kentucky Farm Bureau planned to submit comments to the EPA Friday.

“To me, there’s just too much ambiguity in the rule,” said Joe Cain, who tracks federal issues for the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation. “Rather than creating the clarity that they mention, it really creates a lot more confusion. And it could lead to a huge expansion of federal oversight.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation is also pushing hard against the rule nationally, and even had a countdown clock on its Web site Friday to spur more comments.

While the Clean Water Act exempts routine farming practices from certain permits, that exemption is filled with enough loopholes and limitations of its own that farm practices are effectively hamstrung by EPA authority, the bureau says. The new rule would “make it more difficult to farm or change a farming operation to remain competitive and profitable.”

The EPA has said those fears are overblown, and has rebutted what its administrator said is “a growing list of misunderstandings” about the rule. The EPA, in its assessments, projects that the new rule would result in a 3 percent increase in jurisdiction. But farm groups say that seriously under-counts waters that could become covered.

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