The unusual request by state governments for more federal regulation came during a hearing of a U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee meeting on a bill being drafted by Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland that would strengthen the federal Clean Water Act to provide consequences if states fail to reduce pollution.
A similar bill, being proposed in the Senate by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, would also impose new requirements to curb polluted storm water runoff, provide $1.7 billion in federal funding to help in this effort, and create a legally binding deadline of 2020 for the establishment of necessary cleanup programs.
“It’s not every day that someone comes and says, ‘show me some teeth. Pick up a hammer and do something to me if I don’t do something.’ But we’re at this point,” said Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources L. Preston Bryant, Jr. “State budget writers don’t fear the EPA. There has to be a level of consequences that hasn’t been enacted in the past.”
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental organizations strongly support the legislation being considered by Cummings and Cardin, because three interstate agreements to clean up the Bay over the last quarter century have been broken.
Congressman Cummings, speaking at today’s hearing, wanted representatives of the Bay area states to clarify know how much flexibility they wanted in the new federal legislation.
“Flexibility can create some loopholes, and it flies in the face of everything we are trying to accomplish,” Cummings said. “Are we going to grab this thing and deal with it right now? Are we going to make the Chesapeake Bay and the environment better than when we found it? Or are we going to leave it worse off?”
Shari Wilson, Maryland’s Secretary of the Environment, said that she would like to see the kind of flexibility combined with accountability that can be found in the federal Clean Air Act. This law allows states the flexibility to create their own plans for reducing air pollution, but it threatens the withholding of federal funds if states don’t meet their own goals.
“The Clean Air Act provides the best model,” Wilson told the committee. “It has deadlines and sanctions if plans are not adequate, and the sanctions of withholding federal transportation funding.”
Pennsylvania State Representative Michael Sturla said that federal penalties are important. “We need a slightly larger hammer than we have now to hold over some people’s heads….We have asked for voluntary compliance in the past, and everybody says, ‘yeah, we’ll get around to it.’ But years later, they haven’t gotten around to it.”
Today’s hearing was only a starting point in discussions on the federal legislation, which CBF hopes will become law in this Congress. Over the next few months, CBF plans to continually urge its members and supporters to contact their senators and congressional representatives and ask them to support the bills being proposed by Sen. Cardin and Rep. Cummings.