Politics & Government

EPA administrator: Surprise at focus of backlash to clean-water rule

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy The Christian Science Monitor

The administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was taken aback by parts of the response to a proposed clean-water rule that has riled agriculture interests nationwide.

In a wide-ranging Monday morning roundtable discussion sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said she expected some of the push-back on what is known as the “ Waters of the United States” proposal. But not all of it.

When it was proposed earlier this year, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers billed the proposal as a clarification of the current understanding of which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act and which ones aren’t.

“I wasn’t surprised by the backlash,” McCarthy said. “I was surprised by the focus of it.”

She added: “One of the criticisms that I was not prepared for was the criticism that we did no outreach before we put the rule out. We actually did a guidance document that went through extensive public comment, that included the very same science that underpins our proposed rule, that approaches it in exactly the same way, with very, very, very similar conclusions. And the main comment there was, put this out in a rule. It deserves broader comment. So I was surprised that we were criticized for not actually taking public comment in a way that was really open and engaging, because that’s actually what this proposed rule was responding to.”

The rule came about because the 1972 Clean Water Act pretty clearly cover rivers, lakes and year-round wetlands – but other waters aren’t so obvious, such as wetlands that dry up some months of the year.

U.S. farm interests reacted strongly to the proposal, saying it would vastly increase the EPA’s authority – something the agency disputes. The American Farm Bureau Federation and other farm groups were part of a deluge of nearly 500,000 comments that came in on the rule, as of last count; the EPA and Army Corps hope to finalize the rule next year.

Separately, McCarthy has a blog post about the rule and some of the free-for-all it engendered. “We want you to know we’re listening,” she wrote.

Most of her comments to reporters Monday were about the Obama administration’s climate-change agenda, which – like the water rule – faces significant opposition when Republicans take over both houses of Congress in January.