Politics & Government

Obama administration warns of possible veto if presented Clean Water Act bill

A great egret flies above a pond near the Delaware waterway known as Taylors Gut on July 22, 2014. The pond is southeast of a complex of wetland formations called Delmarva bays that are part of a federal proposal to update the Clean Water Act. (Chris Adams/McClatchy)
A great egret flies above a pond near the Delaware waterway known as Taylors Gut on July 22, 2014. The pond is southeast of a complex of wetland formations called Delmarva bays that are part of a federal proposal to update the Clean Water Act. (Chris Adams/McClatchy) McClatchy

As the U.S. House voted on a bill that would stifle the Obama administration’s ability to push through new clean-water rules, the White House said it “strongly opposes” the bill and that the president’s senior advisers would recommend that he veto it.

The issue is a House bill that would prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers from finalizing a rule that they recently released to clarify the scope and impact of the Clean Water Act.

The 86-page rule seeks to clarify which waters come under the powers of the 1972 Clean Water Act and which ones don’t. While rivers, lakes and year-round wetlands are obviously covered, other land formations that may be wet some months and dry others have long vexed regulators; two U.S. Supreme Court cases in the 2000s muddied things further.

The proposed rule by the EPA and Army Corps is intended to take the standards laid out by the high court and use them to simplify and clarify interpretations of the Clean Water Act.

But as the McClatchy Washington Bureau recently wrote, the draft rules have engendered a major backlash from agricultural interests, as well as others who say the rules amount to a significant overreach by federal regulators.

An American Farm Bureau Federation official said the rule is “very expansive” and the bureau is pushing hard against it. While the Clean Water Act exempts routine farming practices from certain permits, that exemption is filled with enough exemptions and limitations of its own that farm practices are effectively hamstrung by EPA authority, the bureau said; the new rule would “make it more difficult to farm or change a farming operation to remain competitive and profitable,” it added.

In its statement of policy, the White House said: “The agencies’ rulemaking, grounded in science, is essential to ensure clean water for future generations and reduce regulatory uncertainty, and is responsive to calls for rulemaking from Congress, industry and community stakeholders as well as decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

It went on, saying the bill “would sow more confusion and invite more conflict at a time when our communities and businesses need clarity and certainty around clean water regulation. Simply put, this bill is not an act of good government… If the president were presented with H.R. 5078, his senior advisers would recommend that he veto the bill.”

Late Tuesday, the House passed the bill, 262-152. Republicans overwhelmingly supported it, 227-1; among Democrats, the vote was 35-151.

One environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, immediately sent a statement calling the vote “appalling.”

“The recent toxic algae disaster in Toledo shows Congress should be working to strengthen water protections, not weaken them,” Jon Devine, a senior attorney in the organization, said in a statement. “The GOP bill would sow confusion among stakeholders by derailing current administration efforts to safeguard critical waterways, and the Obama administration has already threatened to veto the legislation.”

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