The House of Representatives on Tuesday passed the first tough environmental protection measure of the year, voting to strengthen the law that offers basic protections against contaminated tapwater.
The proposed new Safe Drinking Water Act passed easily because it pleases practically everybody - cutting government red tape, adding new consumer protections, and giving legislators a chance to support a high-profile pro-environment measure in an election year.
“We’re here to lay to rest two Washington truisms … that Congress can’t enact good legislation in an election year and that the 104th Congress can’t enact good environmental legislation at all,” said Virginia Rep. Thomas Bliley, who shepherded the bill through the House. “This is good environmental legislation in an election year.”
Environmentalists agreed. “We think it’s a significant victory for public health,” said Erik Olson, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The bill is the first major environmental initiative to pass the House in 1996, and the only one that appears sure to become law before the November elections.
It reshapes the 22-year-old law protecting public tapwater supplies in ways long sought by environmental groups, local governments and the Clinton administration.
It simplifies the way the Environmental Protection Agency sets standards for water purity, and provides $1 billion a year in loans to water systems that can’t afford to meet the standards. It gives the EPA money and authority to begin protecting the public against emerging health risks, like the microbe cryptosporidium and the potentially cancer-causing chemicals produced by chlorine disinfection.
And it requires utilities to tell their customers once a year, in plain English, what contaminants are in their tapwater and what potential health risks they bear.
The bill now goes into negotiations with the Senate, which passed a slightly narrower version 99-0 last winter. The Clinton administration, environmental groups and water utilities support the House version of the bill.
Over a year in the making, the delicate political compromise almost fell apart at the last minute when Republicans quietly added $375 million worth of hometown water projects for the districts of 14 legislators - 12 Republicans and two Democrats.
The last-minute maneuver prompted outraged howls of “Pork! Pork! Shameless pork! Pork … that could teach pigs to swim!” from Michigan Democrat John Dingell, who threatened to sidetrack Tuesday’s vote. But in a textbook example of election-year thrust and parry, he struck a quick deal with Bliley and allowed the bill to pass on a group “aye,” with no individual votes recorded.
Thus the 14 representatives got their water projects, but every House member lost the chance to brag on the campaign trail that he or she voted in favor of the new drinking water law.
The vote was particularly important for House Republicans, who have developed a reputation as foes of the environment after a series of controversial votes last year.