September 18, 2019

Chairs DeFazio, Napolitano Statements from Hearing on “The Administration’s Priorities and Policy Initiatives Under the Clean Water Act”

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Chair of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment Grace F. Napolitano (D-CA) during today’s hearing titled: “The Administration’s Priorities and Policy Initiatives Under the Clean Water Act.”

Chair DeFazio:

We are here today to talk about actions taken by the Trump EPA and the impacts they will have for years to come on our public health and environment.

Clean water is a basic human need and human right. Our families rely on rivers and streams to supply clean drinking water to our homes and businesses. Our farmers and brewers rely on clean water to produce good food and drink. Hunters, anglers, and birders need water and wetlands to sustain wildlife and the $887 billion outdoor recreation industry.

The Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972 on an overwhelming and bipartisan basis.  Before the Act, rivers served as little more than open sewers, Lake Erie was pronounced “dead,” and Ohio’s Cuyahoga River literally caught on fire. Thanks to bipartisan efforts over decades to implement the Clean Water Act, our rivers and lakes are cleaner and safer.

Yet, the Trump administration has taken and is taking several misguided, misinformed, and fundamentally flawed actions that will undo the progress we have made.

First, the Trump administration is leading a campaign to dismantle our nation’s Clean Water Act - all at the behest of the mining industry, oil and gas sectors, and small and large industrial polluters. Trump’s EPA recently finalized a roll back of CWA protections - all the way back to what they were in 1986.

The administration’s next step is to roll back the scope of waters covered by the Act – protecting far fewer rivers, lakes, and streams than even President Reagan thought appropriate. Preliminary estimates suggest that the Trump proposal would strip Clean Water Act protections for over 60 percent of stream miles and close to half of our remaining acres of wetlands.

If the Trump administration takes the most radical approach and removes protections for both intermittent and ephemeral streams, as many as 74% of stream miles mapped in my State of Oregon could be left without protections; 87% of stream miles in the State of California; 99% in the state of Arizona; 97% in the state of New Mexico; and 96% in the State of Nevada. That is a lot of stream miles that could become more polluted in the future.

In the Trump administration’s own economic analysis of their flawed proposal, they include a chart that shows the potential environmental and economic impacts of the Dirty Water Rule. Even though EPA chose to look at the impacts to just three (3) Clean Water Act programs, the potential impacts are great.

The environmental impacts include: reduced wetland habitat; increased flood risk; more pollution into waterbodies; degraded aquatic habitats; increased oil spill risk; and affected drinking water intakes. The economic impacts include greater costs related to downstream flooding; greater drinking water treatment costs; greater spill response costs; and greater damage from oil spills.

This administration will tell you states will fill in the gaps in federal law and take up the role of protecting these waters. Don’t be fooled. States and localities have shown no interest in backstopping the protections stripped by the Trump EPA – states and localities have less incentive and fewer resources to ensure that waters that flow out of their boundaries are clean.  We tried that approach before enactment of the Clean Water Act, when there was a patchwork of state laws, and saw what an epic failure that was.

Second, we are in an infrastructure crisis. The EPA estimates that some $270 billion in infrastructure investment is needed over the next 20 years - and that is just to get our country’s current wastewater infrastructure into good shape. That doesn’t include what we need to invest to ensure that our infrastructure is resilient and ready to deal with the impacts of climate change and stronger and more persistent storms.

Despite these demonstrated needs, the Trump administration proposed massive cuts to the primary water infrastructure investment program - the Clean Water State Revolving Fund program - asking for barely $1 billion for Fiscal Year 2020. That is a ridiculously low amount given the need.

The President claims to be the best at building things, but to date he has not put together a comprehensive plan for successfully upgrading and maintaining our infrastructure - wastewater or otherwise.

Third, the Trump EPA is undoing the previous administration’s efforts to limit communities’ exposure to toxic pollutants from power plants. In 2013, the Obama administration proposed the first update to power plant regulations since 1982 by proposing limits on the toxic metals power plants can discharge.

This Committee held oversight hearings when the Tennessee Valley Authority Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash pond disaster occurred back in 2008. While there have been various efforts in Congress to address coal ash pollution, the first effort from EPA was when the Obama administration attempted to protect communities from toxic pollution in coal ash from power plants across the country.

The Obama administration determined there would be significant benefits related to their proposal. The monetary benefits were projected to be $451-$566 million each year and was expected to reduce heavy metals entering waterways by 1.4 billion pounds, or 90 percent. At the same time, the analysis showed the new discharge limits would have “minimal impacts on electricity prices and the amount of electricity generating capacity.”

Now, the Trump administration is blocking the implementation of these important safeguards.

Is it because EPA is looking at new science or other data that indicates we don’t need to limit exposure to things like arsenic, selenium, lead, mercury, boron, and cadmium? Or is it because industry groups persuaded the Trump EPA to delay implementation of these important protections?  Spoiler alert: it is the latter.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration is up to more than just that. The Trump EPA is dropping the ball on enforcing the law, finalizing fewer civil enforcement actions in its first year than the previous three administrations during similar time periods.  In addition, the political head of EPA’s enforcement office issued new procedures requiring political appointee sign off before enforcement actions move forward.

The Trump administration is also restarting projects already found to be bad for the environment, such as Pebble Mine in Alaska and the Yazoo Pumps in Mississippi; stripping EPA of an important “veto” tool to intervene when a project threatens water quality; shrugging off setting standards after a chemical storage facility in West Virginia released 10,000 gallons of waste, affecting 300,000 residents; and the list goes on and on.

President Trump often says he wants “clean water,” but, time-after-time, his actions undermine or eliminate existing protections of our waters and put the health of our families and our local economies at risk. This administration has made it a priority to dismantle the Clean Water Act, regardless of the science or the law. 

Clearly, the winners of this administration’s roll backs are the developers, manufacturers, and corporate farmers that don’t want to be responsible for the pollutants they dump into our rivers and streams.

The losers are our families, our local communities and businesses, and our environment that will have to live with the long-term consequences of dirty water.

Chair DeFazio remarks as delivered can be found here.

Chair Napolitano:

Today’s hearing has been a long time in coming. 

This is our first opportunity in three years to question this administration on its vision of the Clean Water Act – and whether this vision is consistent with the law and in line with the wishes of the American people.

We have a lot to discuss.

In the past three years, this administration has taken unprecedented steps to critically weaken our Clean Water Act – one of our nation’s most important environmental laws for protecting our health and the health of our environment.

In just three short years, this EPA has repealed efforts to restore long-standing protections for the rivers, streams, and wetlands that provide drinking water to over 117 million Americans.

In just three years, this EPA has proposed to eliminate Reagan-era protections on an estimated 50 million acres of wetlands and over 2 million miles of rivers and streams – more than half of the remaining wetlands and stream miles in this entire country.

In just three years, this EPA has ground Clean Water Act enforcement to a standstill, imposing political influences on decisions when (or if) to enforce the law and relying on unproven and unquantifiable so-called “compliance initiatives” to make it sound like the agency is doing something.

In just three years, this EPA has attached the foundational underpinnings of the 1972 Clean Water Act, including the long-standing Federal-State partnership in co-administering the law, the backstop EPA veto authority which ensures that projects with “unacceptable impacts” to the environment cannot move forward, and the authority to prevent pollution from existing point sources.

Finally, in just three short years, this administration has actively tried to eviscerate, undermine, and silence the scientific and technical expertise and effectiveness of this agency – clearly demonstrating this administration’s fear of science, and its view that a weakened, underfunded, and understaffed agency is a “compliant” agency. 

As noted in recent testimony by the former Republican EPA Administrator, Christie Todd Whitman:

“Today, as never before, the mission of EPA is being seriously undermined by the very people who have been entrusted with carrying that mission out … The Trump administration has explicitly sought to reorient the EPA towards industrial and industry-friendly interests, often with little or no acknowledgement of the agency’s health and environmental missions.”

Administrator Ross, I am glad you accepted our invitation to testify here this morning and appreciate your being here. 

However, as you can surmise, Members on both sides of the aisle are frustrated by the seeming disconnect between your actions and the missions of EPA. 

I can only imagine that polluters love what you are doing. 

However, when 63 percent of the Americans tell us they are a great deal worried about pollution in their drinking water, when 57 percent of American worry a great deal about pollution in their rivers, lakes and reservoirs, and when hard working Americans and communities of color say they are more concerned about water pollution than any time in recent history – something is clearly wrong.

That is your job today – to answer to this Subcommittee and the American people why you think a weakened Clean Water Act is in the best interests of the hard-working American families.

And, please, don’t fall back to the tired, false choice of economy versus the environment.  I can easily point you to both the Clinton and Obama administration’s where the economy was strong, as was our Clean Water Act protections.

I wish you luck.

Chair Napolitano’s remarks as delivered can be found here.