Alaska News

House tries to rein in EPA, to dismay of conservationists

An EPA effort to protect wetlands and small streams upriver from its established haunts on "navigable waters" is winning praise from outdoors groups as a way to ensure water quality, but U.S. House Republicans, including Alaska Rep. Don Young, say it's "federal overreach."

To emphasize the point, the House titled a bill to hold back the EPA, "Waters of the United States Regulatory Overreach Protection Act of 2014." Young was one of its dozens of co-sponsors, and it easily passed the Republican-led House Tuesday, 262-152. One Republican voted no and 35 Democrats voted yes.

But Chris Hunt, a spokesman for Trout Unlimited, said the bill, HR 5078, was more like "congressional overreach" into an area the EPA long had jurisdiction -- the streams and marshes that feed into the rivers directly covered by the U.S. Clean Water Act.

"The notion that this is some sort of regulatory overreach needs to be stamped down," Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said in a media teleconference before the House vote. "The better name for this bill would be the 'Dead Zone Preservation Act.' "

A coalition of conservation and sportsman organizations, led by Trout Unlimited, called the last-minute news conference to build opposition to the House bill, though the speakers acknowledged their effort would likely be futile. Their bigger hope, they said, was to block the bill in the Democrat-controlled Senate, which is friendlier territory to environmental groups.

The EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which share regulatory oversight of the nation's rivers and coastal waters, are proposing a new rule that would give them jurisdiction over small headwaters and the wetlands that feed them. According to both sides, the agencies had adopted that jurisdiction after the 1972 passage of the Clean Water Act. Then, two decisions in the 2000s by the U.S. Supreme Court said the agencies hadn't properly shown the connection between the small headwaters and navigable waterways.

Hunt, the Trout Unlimited spokesman, said the agencies have since done extensive scientific work to prove the connections. The proposed rule, now in the public comment phase, would require some developers, like mine operators, to get a permit if they want to alter those areas and show they wouldn't cause water quality issues downstream, he said.


The spokesman for Rep. Young, Matt Shuckerow, didn't respond to a message asking for an interview on the bill with Young. In a prepared statement emailed to reporters by Shuckerow, Young asserted that the intent of the Clean Water Act was to give states, not the federal government, jurisdiction over headwaters.

Young said that expanding the reach of the federal agencies "will do more damage" to the economy.

"Oil and gas operations, road transportation projects, farming, homebuilding and mining, undertaken where permafrost persists or where there are seasonal wet areas, would likely become subject to federal jurisdiction even if these waters never reach 'navigable waters,'" Young said.

At the morning news conference, the advocates of greater agency oversight said they had a strong economic argument too, mainly in the damage caused to drinking water by upstream pollution and the enhanced value to hunting, fishing and tourism of clean headwaters.

"Today, the nation faces water quality problems of all sorts," said Steve Moyer, head of government affairs for Trout Unlimited. "This summer, we had a Toledo polluted-drinking-water crisis, we had dead zones in the Gulf (of Mexico) and Chesapeake, and today we have thousands of miles of streams that are dead because of abandoned-mine pollution in the mountains of the East and West, and we're losing our wetlands at an alarming rate."

Moyer said the House bill is the wrong approach "and sportsmen will not stand quietly by while it happens."

Richard Mauer

Richard Mauer was a longtime reporter and editor for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.