WASHINGTON - Industry groups and more than a dozen GOP senators are urging the Obama administration to reconsider plans to regulate many of the nation's streams and wetlands, saying the proposed rule hurts economic activity and oversteps legal bounds.
In a letter earlier this week, the senators faulted the Environmental Protection Agency for announcing a proposed rule last week before the government's peer-reviewed scientific assessment was fully complete. They are calling on the government to withdraw the rule or give the public six months to review it, rather than the three months being provided.
The senators' move puts them among several groups - from farmers and land developers to Western governors worried about drought management - in expressing concern about a long-running and heavily litigated environmental issue involving the Clean Water Act that has invoked economic interests, states' rights and presidential power.
The letter was led by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and signed by 14 other GOP senators.
"We believe that this proposal will negatively impact economic growth by adding an additional layer of red tape to countless activities that are already sufficiently regulated by state and local governments," the letter to EPA chief Gina McCarthy said.
Alisha Johnson, the EPA's deputy associate administrator for external affairs and environmental education, said the EPA's draft scientific assessment, used to inform the proposed rule, was being reviewed and wouldn't be complete until the end of this year or early next year. The EPA rule will not be finalized until the scientific assessment is fully complete, and will take into account public comments, she said.
At issue is the federal Clean Water Act, which gives the EPA authority to regulate "U.S. waters." Two Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 limited regulators' reach but left unclear the scope of authority over small waterways that might flow intermittently. Landowners and developers say the government has gone too far in regulating isolated ponds or marshes with no direct connection to navigable waterways.
Some 36 states, including Pennsylvania, have legal limitations that prevent the EPA from regulating waters not covered by the Clean Water Act, according to the Environmental Law Institute.
The rule proposal by the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers seeks to clarify which waters or wetlands would trigger federal requirements, such as permitting and state water quality certification. Seasonal and rain-dependent streams - and wetlands near rivers and streams - would be covered; others would be considered on a case-by-case basis to determine if they play a significant role in the quality of downstream waters.
In a statement released this week, the American Farm Bureau Federation criticized the rule as giving the federal government authority over creeks and even ditches that are miles away from "navigable waters."
According to the EPA, exemptions already granted for farming activities would continue and 53 agricultural conservation practices would be added to the list. But Bob Stallman, the Farm Bureau's president, said the proposed rule will create more uncertainty because it subjects farmers to potential regulation if water pools on their private land after a rainfall.
"Clean Water Act jurisdiction over farmlands amounts to nothing less than federal veto power over a farmer's ability to farm," he said, citing essential farming activities such as pest and weed control.
The proposed regulation, broadly supported by environmental groups, has become a charged political issue in a midterm election year when President Barack Obama has pledged to use his executive power as needed to push through environmental and climate change protections.
"The EPA's proposed rule is a terrifying power grab," said Toomey, who appeared at an event in Carlisle, Pa., with more than two dozen farmers to criticize the regulation. "The EPA's new position seems to be that a puddle from your garden hose will ultimately end up in a navigable waterway, so the agency should have dominion over that water, too."
Still, the issue is not divided strictly along partisan lines.
The proposed rule has drawn the concern of Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, chairman of the Western Governors Association. He has warned federal officials that the rule change could impinge upon state authority in water management and that states should be consulted in the EPA decision-making. In recent years, Hickenlooper has urged the Obama administration to speed approval of water projects because of a looming water supply gap in Colorado.