The Bush administration today finalized changes to Clean Water Act regulations that would for the first time in 25 years allow the US Army Corps of Engineers to permit waste to fill and destroy the nation's waters. In an attempt to appease the coal mining industry and in a rush to avoid additional Congressional and public scrutiny, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman signed the rule change.
"It says something when an administration takes an action like this late on a Friday -- that they hope no one sees it," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice. "This is a 'Friday Night Massacre' for our nation's waters and it's the biggest threat to our nation's waters in decades, perhaps since the Clean Water Act passed 30 years ago. Allowing masses of industrial wastes to be dumped in streams, lakes, rivers, and wetlands is contrary to the very purpose of the Clean Water Act and represents a major weakening of current clean water law."
EPA's press release states this will "enhance environmental protections" for waters. "Nothing could be further from the truth," said Mulhern. "Anyone who has ever seen what happens when a stream is buried under 900 feet of mining rubble would not conclude that this is a good thing for water quality. More than 1000 miles of streams already have been destroyed in Appalachia by the coal companies that have been flouting the Clean Water Act for years while the EPA and the Corps looked the other way."
"Now that citizens have taken state and federal agencies to court to ensure our environmental laws are enforced, coal companies have sought – and been granted – legal relief from the Bush administration. Their lavish contributions to the Bush-Cheney campaign have just been paid back," Mulhern added.
In recent days, dozens of members of Congress have sent letters to President Bush highlighting their concerns about this. US Senators James Jeffords (I-VT) and Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) sent a letter on Wednesday to President Bush asking him to stop immediately his administration's efforts to overturn this important Clean Water Act rule. The Environment and Public Works Committee Chair and the Wetlands Subcommittee Chair, respectively, expressed concern that the rule change would allow industries – such as coal mining and hardrock mining companies – to fill the nation's waters with waste material.
"The proposed rule would jeopardize the health of the nation's streams, wetlands, lakes, rivers and other waters," the Senators' letter states. "We ask that your administration not take any further action to finalize this rulemaking, including sending it to the Office and Management and Budget for review, until the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has had an opportunity to review the effects that this rulemaking will have on the health of our nation's waterways."
"It is outrageous that the EPA ignored this request from the Senate committee that oversees the Clean Water Act and most EPA programs," said Mulhern.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of 57 members of the House of Representatives, led by Frank Pallone (D-NJ), sent a letter to Administrator Whitman conveying their "strong opposition" to the proposed rule. "This rule change is a clear attempt to legalize the destructive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining, where coal companies literally blow the tops off of mountains and dump the waste into nearby valleys and streams," stated the House letter.
In March, a dozen senior House Republicans led by Representative Chris Shays (R-CT) also wrote to President Bush, urging him to reconsider "this ill-advised and dangerous rulemaking" to allow waste disposal in waters.
"The bipartisan opposition to this waste dumping rule has been significant and growing as Senators and Representatives have learned about the threat it poses to waters in their districts," said Mulhern. "While this rule is being motivated by the administration's desire to legalize the illegal waste dumping practices of the coal industry, its effects will be nationwide. Every stream, wetland, river, and lake in the country will be placed at risk of becoming a dumping ground for mining waste, construction debris, even garbage."
Copies of the Senate and House letters are available by contacting Ken Goldman.