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Conference on Water Resources Legislation Described as Headed Toward April 30 Finish

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

By Alan Kovski  

March 18 --The House-Senate conference working to reconcile two water infrastructure bills appears headed toward a windup of the work at the end of April, according to Michael Toohey, president of the Waterways Council, a coalition supportive of waterborne shipping.

The details of the compromises developed by lawmakers and staff are being kept confidential by conference participants, but Toohey, at a March 18 news briefing, said it was his impression the participants intended to allow maybe one more project authorization to get into the bill.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act (H.R. 3080) would authorize funding for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects including construction and maintenance of dams, locks, levees, river channels, harbors and environmental restoration projects.

If another project receives the final procedural approval of a chief of engineer's report by--approximately--the end of April, the conferees then could make their recommendation to both houses of Congress, Toohey said. His council lobbies for the interests of a spectrum of carriers, their shipping customers, port authorities and other interested parties.

Projects Overshadow Other Issues

The House bill would not approve funding of any additional projects beyond those specified in the legislation passed in October. The Senate version, approved in May, would include funding of any projects with chief's reports and recommendations to Congress at the time the legislation is signed into law.

For conferees, the task is to work out a compromise cutoff point for projects, Toohey said.

The legislation becomes something of a tug of war as lawmakers try to get projects for their home states or districts.

Observers have been citing the differing authorization details as the chief cause for the legislation's slow movement. The conference began working on the compromises in November and since then has wrestled with the question of whether the cost of additional projects would cause House budget hawks to rebel (2014 WLPM, 3/5/14).

The project authorizations are much more important politically to most of the lawmakers than are the provisions for streamlining environmental reviews. Both houses included streamlining provisions over the objections of environmental advocates, but for that issue, too, a resolution of the differences has not been divulged.

Changes Sought on Ballast Water

Joining in the news conference, Tom Allegretti, president of American Waterways Operators, focused on other issues, including the hopes of his group of waterborne transporters to see a uniform federal regulation of ballast water to replace the current patchwork of regulations from two federal agencies and 35 states.

The current system is very costly, very confused and very complicated, and it serves neither the economy nor the environment very well, Allegretti said.

The proposed Vessel Incidental Discharge Act (S. 3094), introduced by Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) with much bipartisan support, would require the Coast Guard, in consultation with the Environmental Protection Agency, to establish uniform national standards governing discharges incidental to the normal operation of a vessel. The standards would supersede all others, including state standards.

Allegretti expressed strong support for S. 3094. He also said Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) has been doing good work on the subject in the House, though with different legislation.

LoBiondo used a March 4 House subcommittee hearing to press an Environmental Protection Agency official on the problem of enforcement where EPA and Coast Guard regulations overlap in impractical ways.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at akovski@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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