Wrangling over new rules from the Obama administration regarding water pollution points out the nation’s political divide when it comes to environmental protections.
Last week, the administration handed down guidelines designed to restore safeguards under the 1972 Clean Water Act to help keep the nation’s water supply free from pollutants. In announcing the rule, President Barack Obama noted that 1 in 3 Americans receive their drinking water from streams that lack clear rules for protection. The impetus is to protect large bodies of water from the contaminants that can be carried by small tributaries, and Bruce Speight, executive director for WashPIRG, a public interest research group, called the new rules “the biggest victory for clean water in a decade.”
Not that everybody is celebrating. Some organizations representing farmers have claimed that the new rules will be untenable, and Republicans in both chambers of Congress already have launched legislative attacks. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, declared the effort “a raw and tyrannical power grab that will crush jobs.”
While Boehner’s proclamation represents overblown political rhetoric, it also highlights the fact that environmental issues have undergone a vast change in recent decades. As The Washington Post noted in 2014: “When the Clean Air Act first became law in 1970, the Senate passed it without a single nay vote. Only one representative had voted against the bill.” And when President George H.W. Bush pushed for an update to the act in the late 1980s, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “I had to choose between cleaner air and the status quo. I chose cleaner air.”
These days McConnell, now the Senate Majority Leader, helps guide a Republican Party that employs a knee-jerk opposition to efforts to address air pollution, water pollution, climate change and carbon emissions. According to The Washington Post, “Republicans — and conservative Democrats — have been hesitant to take up the issues on environmentalists’ minds for years, thanks to an American apathy, a changing ethos in the Republican Party, and the powerful discontent of many who work in energy, especially those in the coal industry.”
All of which means that Obama’s efforts to update clean water regulations are destined for a political battle. U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 led to confusion over protections for streams and left farmers with uncertainty about how the regulations applied to their lands. The new rules, written by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, restore some regulations but fall short of the regulatory authority defined in the original 1972 Clean Water Act.
More clarification is needed. As EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told the National Farmers Union in March, “I want to tell you upfront that I wish we had done a better job of rolling out our clean water rule.” And Rep. Bill Schuster, R-Pa., said, “Not all waters need to be subject to federal jurisdiction.”
But the issue of environmental micromanagement on the part of the federal government extends beyond waterways. The fact is that a small stream running through land owned by a farmer or a rancher eventually connects with a larger stream and finds its way into Puget Sound or the Columbia River. The fact is that emissions spewed from a coal-fired energy plant eventually waft over a neighboring state.
Partisan bickering aside, an individual’s impact on the environment is inextricably delivered upon their neighbor, and that calls for strong oversight from the federal government.