Environmental groups concerned about looming water rule fight in Senate

WASHINGTON -- Environmental advocates say a spending bill set for review in the Senate Appropriations Committee could reopen a fight over whether the Environmental Protection Agency may regulate pollution entering small headwater streams that feed into larger bodies of water, including the Chesapeake Bay.

The Obama administration proposed regulations in March that would allow the EPA to enforce Clean Water Act provisions on nearly two million miles of streams nationally that are tied to larger waterways -- a response to Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 that made that authority unclear.


Republicans and some Democrats have voiced concerns about the proposal, including Sen. John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican who sits on the Appropriations Committee and who earlier this year called the rule a "bureaucratic overreach" that would tie up farmers in red tape.

"Our farmers and ranchers have been feeding the world and managing their land responsibly for generations," Hoeven said in a statement in April. "Now, however, they're very concerned that the EPA is trying to step in and make land-use decision for them."


Hoeven and other Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, will have an opportunity to force the issue when the Senate Appropriations Committee considers amendments to a spending bill that funds energy and water development programs. A markup of the bill, which had been scheduled for Thursday, was postponed.

It's not only Republicans who have raised concerns about the rule. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat and the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, described the EPA proposal in March as "another example of this agency overreaching and stepping outside of its bounds without thought to the economic consequences of its actions."

Landrieu also sits on the Appropriations Committee.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the chairwoman of the committee, opposes rolling back the rule, an aide said. But advocates are concerned that enough Democrats may side with Republicans to include the amendment, advancing it to the Senate floor. Democratic Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, both of whom are up for reelection this year, have questioned the Obama administration's environmental policies.

An aide told Roll Call earlier this week that McConnell is planning to offer a similar amendment that would roll back the administration's recently announced rule on reducing power plant emissions.

Environmental advocates say that 117 million Americans -- including 3.9 million Marylanders -- get their drinking water from watersheds with intermittently dry or headwater streams covered by the rule.

"Republicans are using must-pass funding legislation to stop environmental laws," said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They're holding the funding of the government hostage to their narrow ideological views."