WASHINGTON (AP) - The Republican-controlled House passed a bill Wednesday that would sharply curtail the federal government's role in protecting waters from pollution by barring the Environmental Protection Agency from overruling state decisions on water quality.
The bill passed on a 239-184 vote. Sixteen Democrats joined the majority of Republicans in supporting it. The White House threatened to veto the bill, saying it "would roll back the key provisions ... that have been the underpinning of 40 years of progress in making the nation's waters fishable, swimmable and drinkable."
Under the Clean Water Act, states have primary responsibility for protecting waterways after the EPA signs off on their plans. But the agency can step in if it thinks water resources aren't being adequately protected.
The measure strips the EPA of that oversight authority. Drafters of the bill said Wednesday that the goal was to restore cooperation between the federal government and the states, and to rein in an agency that they argue is running roughshod over states' rights for a political agenda that kills jobs and harms the economy. The bill included a provision requiring the EPA to determine the toll its actions to protect water quality would have on jobs.
Similar arguments have been used to advance a series of measures in the Republican-controlled House aimed at reining in EPA's powers over pollution. There has not been much success in the Democratic Senate.
"By not taking action, the Congress is tacitly giving the EPA authority to do what it thinks is politically necessary," said Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the House transportation committee, and a co-sponsor of the measure. "This bill is not about whether we support EPA's ends. It's about whether we should use any means to reach those ends."
Under the Obama administration, the EPA has placed the first-ever limits on nutrient-rich runoff in Florida, where phosphorus and nitrogen have led to harmful algal blooms. More recently, in January, the EPA revoked a crucial water permit for West Virginia's largest mountaintop removal mine.
Critics of the bill said it would have much broader implications. The EPA's role has been crucial, they argue, in the effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and to address the dead zone that blooms each year as runoff from Midwest farms flows down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. Those pollution problems go beyond a single state.
A Democratic-led effort to exempt multi-state watersheds from the bill failed Wednesday.