Just a few months ago, many Chesapeake Bay advocates were hopeful Congress would pass legislation that would strengthen federal authority over the bay cleanup and provide billions of dollars to control pollution from storm water and other sources of pollution.
But instead of new authority or money, budget cuts and oversight hearings on existing regulations seem more likely.
“It’s a little bit scary what could be going on in Congress,” said Rick Parrish, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It is clearly going to be hard to get additional money and certainly hard to get any additional authority.”
For example, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has promised stepped-up oversight of federal regulatory programs. He solicited the concerns of businesses across the country, and this week released nearly 2,000 pages of letters and reports complaining about burdensome regulations.
A number specifically targeted the Environmental Protection Agency’s new “pollution diet” for the Chesapeake Bay. Formally known as a Total Maximum Daily Load, the diet sets strict limits on the amount of water-fouling nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment that can enter the bay.
The Agricultural Retailers Association called the bay pollution goals “thoroughly unachievable” and said they were based on a flawed computer model. The National Alliance of Forest Owners said the rules would adversely affect forest owners and warned that the EPA will now “turn to other watersheds” such as the Mississippi to impose similar rules. It called for congressional oversight over such large watershed cleanup plans.
Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment said the pollution diet has the potential to “arbitrarily take away people’s ability to maintain their home property values through unnecessary restrictions on pesticide and fertilizer products.”
It’s a far different atmosphere from last year, when three separate pieces of legislation that sought in various ways to strengthen bay restoration efforts were moving through Congress. A bill sponsored by Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., and championed by many bay advocates, would have provided the EPA more authorities for the cleanup. Another, introduced by Reps. Tim Holden, D-Pa., and Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., would have given the U.S. Department of Agriculture a stronger role in overseeing the bay cleanup. The final one, a measure introduced by Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., was to improve the accountability of the cleanup effort.
Wittman has reintroduced his bill, the Chesapeake Bay Accountability and Recovery Act. The bill would better integrate the role of various federal agencies involved in bay activities, and create more oversight, including establishing an Independent Evaluator to provide an outside analyses of program effectiveness
Cardin and Holden are expected to reintroduce versions of their bills this year.
But Doug Siglin, a lobbyist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said it’s unlikely any comprehensive bay bill, such as the one Cardin introduced last year, will pass the new Congress intact. He said pieces of the legislation might win approval by being incorporated into other bills.
Rather than expanding its authority, many members of the House of Representatives have voiced support for reining in the EPA’s regulatory power and are targeting agency regulations, such as the new TMDL, for review.
Rep. Bob Gibbs, a freshman Republican from Ohio, was named chairman of the Subcommittee On Water Resources and Environment of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The subcommittee has oversight of programs related to the Clean Water Act.
Gibbs, who is a former president of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, said that, “as chairman, it will be my responsibility to modernize, reform and cut waste in the programs and agencies we oversee while advocating for common sense policies that ease regulatory burdens.”
Among the regulatory burdens identified on the subcommittee’s website are the “extremely stringent and expensive total maximum daily loads and water quality standards on states, burdensome wastewater discharge standards and storm water requirements for local governments and utilities, and strict regulatory restrictions on farmers, foresters, developers, power generators, water resource managers, mining operations, commercial vessels and others.”
Actually revoking regulations could be difficult at it would require the Senate and president to go along. But the new Congressional mood could dampen prospects for new federal storm water and animal feedlot regulations.