EPA Wades Into Water Fight With Farmers
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The Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a rule change that would redefine its reach under the Clean Water Act. The EPA says, it's an attempt to clarify which bodies of water are subject to regulation, but farmers have strong objections. Frank Morris of member station KCUR has the story.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The Clean Water Act can be confusing. Bill Heffernan has worked his crop farm in Central Missouri for decades. Then suddenly this summer he discovered a big hunk of it is special.
BILL HEFFERNAN: There are nine ponds on this farm. This one's different than the other eight. And that's what I'm trying to work through my head.
MORRIS: Heffernan is looking at the one pond protected by the Clean Water Act. The act has been in place for decades, but it's not entirely clear what EPA is charged with protecting. Inflicting court decisions have muddied the definition of what's known as waters of the United States.
HEFFERNAN: Every time they start talking I get a little nervous about, gee, have I done something wrong? Am I in trouble?
MORRIS: By they, Heffernan means EPA administrator Gina McCarthy and other regulators. McCarthy's traveled to his farm to take a tractor ride and to explain EPA's proposal to fix the Clean Water Act.
GINA MCCARTHY: A couple of Supreme Court decisions basically told us that EPA should do a better job looking at the science and defining the role in a way that clarified it by the science so that it was easier to implement and easier to follow.
MORRIS: McCarthy says, the rule change replaced streams, ponds and wetlands that are directly connected to rivers squarely under federal jurisdiction. That includes streams that only flow part of the year. No expansion there, she insists. And she says, farmers can keep using land around protected waters just as they have.
MCCARTHY: Because traditional farm practices are exempt. And even if it was outside that, if you're not doing anything that impacts the water frankly that's none of my business.
MORRIS: Many farmers would second that none of my business part.
VIRGIL GARDNER: I'm against it.
MORRIS: Virgil Gardner lives just down the road from Bill Heffernan and worries that if the new rule goes through the EPA will force him to build fences to keep cows out of a creek that crosses his pasture.
GARDNER: But it's my waterway. It's on my land. And I carry the deed to this but the deed ain't worth nothing.
MORRIS: Opponents of the rule call it a power grab.
DON PARRISH: We're all for protecting water quality. This puts EPA in the middle of directing land use - dictating land use.
MORRIS: That's Don Parrish with the American Farm Bureau Federation. He worries that the proposed rule change would provide only vague limits to EPA jurisdiction. And would give the agency a stronger hand in governing commercial development.
PARRISH: This has really brought implications - not only for farmers and ranchers, but for anybody that wants to bring jobs into an area or build a road or build new homes.
MORRIS: Farm groups, meanwhile, have orchestrated a PR campaign to ditch the rule.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) What can we do to ditch the rule?
MORRIS: This video shows images of a Missouri farm family pretending to fish, swim and canoe in a bone-dry ditch. One, it says the EPA wants to regulate. It's funny and very well produced. But EPA administrator Gina McCarthy says, it's off-base.
MCCARTHY: There's a lot of misinformation out there. I've even heard we're regulating the rain. OK. That's what I mean.
MORRIS: McCarthy says, she wants a candid conversation about real problems in the proposed rule change before the comment period closes in mid-October. Farmer Bill Heffernan says, that's a good idea. Complex as the Clean Water Act is, he says, most farmers probably didn't understand the rules before and are now confused about what changes may flow for many new definition of waters of the United States. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.
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