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News Opinion Editorial

Look who's against clean water

Water has a tendency to flow downhill. This has been known for quite some time — to the point one might have assumed word had penetrated the hallowed halls of the U.S. House of Representatives by now.

Alas, it appears not. Last Wednesday, the House voted, 239-184, to rewrite the Clean Water Act to limit federal authority and give the states the final word on interpreting and enforcing water pollution laws. Even more stupefying, one of those voting for this misguided effort represents a district with perhaps the most to gain from stringent enforcement of the Clean Water Act — Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland's 1st Congressional District.

Never mind that the attempt to undermine the landmark 1972 environmental law probably isn't going very far. The U.S. Senate is unlikely to concur, and President Barack Obama has already promised to veto the bill should it land on his desk.

That House Republicans would like nothing more than to gut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is well established. But while Mr. Harris, a staunchly conservative member of the GOP, did not run for office as a friend to the EPA, he did pledge to protect the Chesapeake Bay — a body of water that virtually defines the geography of his district. Tourism, real estate (particularly along the hundreds of miles of waterfront), the seafood industry, and many more local employers are dependent on the health of the bay for their livelihoods.

Make no mistake, this wasn't strictly a party-line vote. The legislation was co-sponsored by a Democrat, West Virginia's Nick Rahall, who no doubt would like to shield his state's controversial mountaintop mining industry from federal regulators and allow it to pollute the Potomac River (which — Mr. Harris, please take note — flows into Maryland) in the process.

Two Virginia Republicans with waterfront districts, Scott Rigell (whose district includes Virginia's Eastern Shore) and Rob Wittman (who represents the Northern Neck), voted against the bill. The Virginia congressmen recognized that any legislation that reduces water quality enforcement in states upstream can't be good for the Chesapeake and for their districts.

Wayne Gilchrest, a moderate Republican who represented Maryland's 1st District for 18 years, would never have supported such a measure. But Mr. Harris put his right-wing ideology ahead of his constituents — and not for the first time.

Earlier this year, Mr. Harris supported Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte's unsuccessful effort to defund the EPA's effort to put the Chesapeake Bay on a "pollution diet" under the Clean Water Act. He also supported reductions in what had been promised federal aid to farmers who, in return, would have reduced polluting runoff.

That pattern of anti-environmental behavior ought to be anathema to district residents who so cherish and depend on the bay. Certainly, it's in stark contrast to the congressman's public face on the subject of the nation's largest estuary.

Last week, the Energy and Environment subcommittee, of which he is a member, approved his bill (his first as a freshman congressman, no less) to fund $1 million worth of research into algae blooms that cause oxygen-free dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere. It's a modest measure he nevertheless trumpeted in a press release as important to helping "prevent further damage to one of Maryland's most important economic engines."

Such research may prove helpful, but it's not nearly as vital as reducing the chief cause of algae blooms — the excess nutrients that pour into the bay and its tributaries from various sources. That can only be accomplished by properly enforcing water quality regulations, and that's exactly what Mr. Harris has chosen to work so foolishly against.

Making his choice all the more head-scratching is the reality that if out-of-state polluters aren't held accountable, Maryland will have little choice but to tighten restrictions on sources of water pollution within the state. And the first to bear the brunt of this may well be the home builders, farmers, homeowners and others living and working in his district.

One can only hope that water is not the only substance that flows downhill. Perhaps the ire of disappointed 1st District voters, including those whose jobs depend on a healthy Chesapeake Bay, will eventually be felt in certain parts of Capitol Hill, too.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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