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An Assault on Clean Water and Democracy

Like the 104th Congress when Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, the House is swinging a sledgehammer at a cornerstone of contemporary American democracy and undermining the most extraordinary body of environmental law in the world.

Chief among the attacks is HR 2018, known as the "Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011." The bill, currently working its way through the House, hogties the federal government's role in administering the federal Clean Water Act and gives states a veto power over a host of critical water quality decisions that the Clean Water Act currently authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency to make. This approach will foster a 1950s-style race to bottom as shortsighted and self-interested state politicians dismantle their clean water laws in order to recruit filthy polluters.

Corporate polluters—through massive campaign donations and relentless fear-mongering—can easily dominate the state political landscapes. Their indentured servants in Congress—many flying the Tea Party banner—are working to disrupt the existing balance between state control and federal oversight in our environmental laws by returning us to the days of limited federal supervision—a time when local government was on the side of polluters in a partnership that was stealing people's livelihoods, their recreation, their health, safety, property values and their childhoods.

The original drafters of the Clean Water Act were keenly aware of the problems inherent in leaving all responsibility to the states. Prior to 1972, that scheme had ignited rivers and firestorms and left Lake Erie declared dead. We saw the results first hand here on the Hudson River in the 1960s—where hundreds of fishermen lost their jobs because their beloved waterways had become too polluted to allow anyone to safely eat the fish. The Clean Water Act, enacted shortly thereafter, created a beautifully simple yet powerfully effective tool to help address these problems: a federal safety net for water quality that guarantees a minimum level of protection to all Americans, no matter where you live. And for nearly 40 years this approach has been working.

Indeed, the Clean Water Act is one of our most important environmental laws, and it is a model—both in the U.S. and abroad—for achieving a sensible balance between state officials' familiarity with local conditions and the important role the federal government plays in protecting all citizens from a race-to-the-bottom by polluters and politicians intent on short term gain at the expense of local communities and long-term prosperity.

Having this shared authority is essential because state agencies face intense pressure to ignore the Clean Water Act in favor of the most powerful corporate interests. It is no coincidence that many of the bill's sponsors are from states where EPA has used its authority under the Act in recent years to make sure minimum levels of protection are achieved, such as West Virginia and Florida.

Unfortunately, HR 2018 rewards states for their past failures and rolls back the clock nationally by promoting an agenda that benefits only those who seek to pollute our waterways—not the communities that depend on them.

Representative Tim Bishop of New York, to his credit, offered an amendment in committee that would have protected water bodies that serve as drinking water supplies, flooding buffers, recreation destinations and habitat for fish and game prized by anglers and hunters from these sweeping rollbacks. But sponsors of the bill would have none of it—further revealing their disinterest in the protection of the American public from the threats of water pollution.

Poll after poll shows the public's support for clean water. The American people didn't stand for these congressional attacks to our environmental laws in the mid-1990's. And we must not stand for them today.

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