EPA Restarts Stalled Drive to Improve Water Protection

Sept. 17 (Bloomberg) -- The Environmental Protection Agency restarted efforts to expand and clarify federal oversight of streams and waterways, after a previous drive provoked a backlash from representatives of farmers and home builders.

The agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers today submitted a proposal to the White House that would establish new regulations under the Clean Water Act, and show how it applies to smaller streams and flood plains. The agencies say their proposed rules are aimed at sorting out the muddying effects of inconsistent legal decisions in recent years.

“The proposed joint rule will provide greater consistency, certainty, and predictability nationwide,” Nancy Stoner, the acting head of the agency’s water office, said in a blog post today. “These improvements are necessary to reduce costs and minimize delays in the permit process and protect waters that are vital to public health, the environment and economy.”

For decades, government officials and businesses have disputed the meaning of one phrase -- the “waters of the United States” -- in the 1972 anti-pollution law. Along with its proposal submitted today, the EPA published a scientific review that may lead to a broad definition linking even small streams that only reach large national water bodies such as the Chesapeake Bay after heavy rains.

In 2011, the agency proposed guidance for other federal agencies on how to interpret the law, a recommendation that was criticized by Republicans in Congress and the American Farm Bureau Federation as stealth rulemaking attempt. The proposal hasn’t been implemented, and the agency now plans to withdraw it and proceed with the latest effort instead.

“We look forward to the agency’s long overdue rule clarifying their protection,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Drajem in Washington at mdrajem@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net