Republicans can’t figure out where they stand on federal environmental regulation. On the one hand, they’ve screamed for years that the Environmental Protection Agency shouldn’t regulate water pollution and instead should leave that oversight to states and tribes. But when they don’t like what states do, they come tromping in to repeal devolution and impose federal authority:
A federal proposal to streamline water-quality laws would “kneecap” Minnesota regulators and effectively remove their authority to protect drinking water, rivers, streams and wildlife from dozens of new projects each year, state officials have warned in a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The proposal, issued by the EPA this fall, is part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to roll back the reach of the Clean Water Act and speed up the approval of federal water-quality permits.
The rule change targets Section 401 of the law, which has granted broad authority to states and tribes over the last 48 years to make sure any federally approved project meets local water-quality laws.
Minnesota has used the provision a few dozen times a year, generally on large projects such as oil pipelines or PolyMet Mining’s proposed copper-nickel mine in northeast Minnesota.
The proposed changes are “akin to tearing up Section 401 and throwing it in the trash,” wrote Katrina Kessler, assistant commissioner for water policy and agriculture at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The changes will “directly harm state and tribal water quality,” Kessler wrote [Greg Stanley, “Minnesota Says New Federal Pollution Rules Would ‘Kneecap’ Water Protections,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2019.11.23].
Republicans’ intent here is to stop states from blocking pipeline and other energy projects. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso is among the Republicans pushing to take away states’ authority over their own water quality, since he’s mad that Washington State used Section 401 to stop a rail project that would have helped ship Wyoming coal to Asia. Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth smells the Republican hypocrisy:
“It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the Trump administration only cares about states’ rights when it is to look the other way, allowing corporate polluters to destroy streams and pave over wetlands,” Duckworth says.
It’s not just states. Many tribes have also opposed the push by Republicans to upend the Clean Water Act, which Duckworth bemoans.
“I recognize the developers who fail to meet the requirements identified by states and tribes may be frustrated by denials in earning federal approval for a given project. However, silencing the voices and inputs of those Americans most directly impacted is the wrong approach,” Duckworth says [Matt Laslo, “Wyoming Officials Try to Tweak Clean Water Act for Coal,” Wyoming Public Media, 2019.11.22].
Oh, wait—maybe Republicans have figured out where they stand: they prefer pollution and profits to potable water. Contrary to their professed principles, Republicans will happily use big government to protect their preference.
But not all Republicans! Surprisingly, South Dakota Republican good-old-boy Hunter Roberts, currently occupying the office of Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, openly objects to his party’s polluter power grab. In a formal letter submitted during the EPA’s public comment period in October, Secretary Roberts told the EPA that the proposed changes to Section 401 “supplant the cooperative federalism to protect water quality that has existed since Congress passed the federal Clean Water Act“:
These changes are a poorly disguised effort by the federal government to severely limit the states and tribes’ efforts to enforce their water quality standards and to impose appropriate conditions on federally-issued permits.
…The proposed changes effectively ignore these fundamental wishes of Congress. As states and tribes take vastly different approaches to protect their waters, EPA’s attempt to promote a nationally-consistent approach interjects unwanted federal oversite to state and tribal programs.
While the goal of improving the nation’s energy infrastructure is certainly admirable, it should not come at the cost of curtailing the states’ and tribes’ Congressionally-authorized role in protecting the environment. South Dakota has already established streamlined permitting and approval processes with federal agencies. Short-circuiting our existing environmental protection frameworks at the cost of fast-tracking projects could lead to environmental and public health impacts to our citizens.
We stand ready to work with EPA to streamline the 401 certification process and address any valid concerns federal agencies may have. This rule is not the vehicle for those discussions. South Dakota opposes the proposed regulations and requests EPA rescind this rule [Secretary Hunter Roberts, letter to EPA, 2019.10.21].
But Secretary Roberts did cc his objection to our Congressional delegation. Let’s hope Thune, Rounds, and Johnson can see clear the brown smear from their Executive/Energy-obsequity and do what South Dakota wants: reject gutting Section 401 and leave intact the authority of states and tribes to keep their water clean.