The House approved a sweeping overhaul of federal water pollution policy Tuesday, including easing wetlands protection and giving industry greater flexibility in complying with water quality standards.
The Clinton administration and other critics of the bill said the broad changes, passed by a 240-185 vote, amount to gutting of the 1972 Clean Water Act and reverse two decades of improving the quality of the nation’s lakes and rivers.
The legislation’s prospects in the Senate are uncertain. President Clinton has hinted he would veto the House version if it emerges from Congress.
The bill garnered the support of 195 Republicans and 45 Democrats. Many of them attacked the overly burdensome and costly federal regulations. Thirty-four Republicans joined 150 Democrats and one independent in opposing it.
Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., the bill’s chief sponsor, repeatedly characterized opponents of the bill as “extreme environmentalists” and defenders of federal bureaucrats. During the debate over wetlands, Shuster said the aim is to protect landowners from “the environmental Gestapo” that enforces wetlands rules.
The legislation would narrow significantly the definition of a wetland, requiring that it contain standing water for 21 consecutive days to be protected, and would require the government to reimburse landowners for financial losses from a wetland designation.
Critics of the new system charge that the new plan would free as much as 70 percent of wetlands currently protected by the government for development. That, they add, would contribute to a general decline in water quality nationwide because wetlands have been shown to play a critical role in filtering impurities from water, as well as to help mitigate floods and provide essential habitat for migrating birds.
Shuster said he believes the impact will be much smaller.
“Americans don’t want us to turn back 20 years of progress on clean water … on safe drinking water,” declared Rep. David Bonier of Michigan, the No. 2 House Democrat. He said the bill “stops 20 years of progress dead in its tracks.”
EPA Administrator Carol Browner called the bill “irresponsible” and said it provides numerous “loopholes” that will allow industry to pollute the nation’s waterways.
“This isn’t a question of do we continue to move forward. This bill takes us back to a time when raw sewage and toxic chemicals were discharged into rivers and lakes,” Browner said in an interview.
During five days of floor debate, moderate Republicans and Democrats failed in their attempt to scale back the scope of the bill, especially as it applies to wetlands.
An amendment by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., to substitute more modest changes in the 1972 law was rejected by a vote of 184-242. When Boehlert tried to scale back the wetlands provision, he was defeated 185-242.
“Why are we afraid of science,” declared Boehlert, citing a report by the National Academy of Sciences last week that said the criteria used in the House bill for defining wetlands was unscientific and would leave many legitimate wetlands unprotected.
Perhaps the most contentious part of the bill, the wetlands issue prompted a sometimes heated defense of property rights and an assault on the powers of big government. Lawmakers showed pictures of seemingly arid sections of land that, nevertheless, have been set aside as wetlands under current policy.
The issue is “between the rights of individuals and the arrogance of government,” declared Rep. James Hayes, D-La., who crafted much of the wetlands language.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, D-La., called the debate and votes a showdown on property rights because the bill would require the federal government to reimburse landowners for financial losses if land is declared a wetland.
“The bill ignores the science
when it is in the interest of the polluter to do so,” declared Rep. Norman Mineta, D-Calif., who has led opposition the legislation.
xxxx (This sidebar is from the Idaho Edition. The Final Edition was only a partial list) 1. How they voted Here’s how Northwest lawmakers voted on overhaul of the 1972 Clean Water Act. A “yes” vote is a vote to approve the bill. Idaho. Republicans - Helen Chenoweth, Y; Mike Crapo, Y. Montana. Democrats - Pat Williams, N. Oregon. Republicans - Jim Bunn, Y; Wes Cooley, Y. Democrats - Peter DeFazio, N; Elizabeth Furse, N; Ron Wyden, N. Washington. Republicans - Jennifer Dunn, Y; Doc Hastings, Y; Jack Metcalf, Y; George Nethercutt, Y; Linda Smith, Y; Randy Tate, Y; Rick White, Y. Democrats - Norm Dicks, N; Jim McDermott, N.
(This sidebar was cut in the Final Edition) 2. Water bill at a glance Highlights of a legislation passed Monday by the House to revamp the 1972 Clean Water Act: Wetlands. Narrows the definition of wetlands to require that land have surface water over 21 straight days during growing season. Also categorizes declared wetlands for various levels of protection. Property rights. Requires the government to compensate land owners for financial losses if property value declines by at last 20 percent because of a wetlands declaration. Industrial pollution. Gives more authority to states and local officials in controlling pollution from industrial plants. Make it easier for industries to obtain pollution waivers. Sewage. Eases requirements for many cities in complying with so-called “secondary” - or chemical - treatment of sewage. Also allows factories to stop treating releases if wastes go to a public treatment facility. Agriculture. Abandons federal programs for control agricultural runoffs into lakes rivers, including those containing pesticides and fertilizer. Stormwater. Repeals federal requirements that factories and municipalities obtain permits for discharges through storm drainage systems. This includes pollution from urban development and industrial plants that is carried into waterways as part of rainwater runoff. - Associated Press