Water Resources Bill May Get Vote by Week’s End

By Alan Kovski, Rachel Leven, Dean Scott and Brian Dabbs

Sept. 7 — The Senate will try to pass the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (S. 2848) before the week is out, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Sept. 7.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) similarly suggested the Senate might “hotline” the water infrastructure bill, an apparent reference to the shortcut of a unanimous consent vote rather than a slower process amendment and debate.

It was unclear how much their remarks might be a result of excessive optimism. No senator said the bill definitely would be passed in the few remaining days of the work week.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) expressed strong doubt about a fast passage of WRDA.

“It’s going to be slow, because I think everyone wants it to stay here until they resolve the budget issues. So I think we could probably resolve it in a week, but it will probably take two, two-and-a-half weeks,” he said.

Appropriations legislation was the elephant in the room. Senators were considering what sort of continuing resolution they needed to pass to keep the government funded beyond the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year, a concern that could easily take precedence over the water infrastructure bill.

Amendment Language Lined Up

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Boxer, as chairman and ranking member respectively of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, called for all amendments for WRDA to be sent to them by July 31.

In August, committee staff worked to prepare the way for action in September with a manager’s amendment to accommodate various interests. Boxer said the bill will pass easily.

“I mean we’re dealing with ecosystem restoration, port development, navigation, flood control, lead in water ... it just has some wonderful components in it,” Boxer said Sept. 7. “So I feel good about it.”

The reference to lead in water was a reminder that the Senate bill has financial assistance for Flint, Mich., and other communities dealing with contaminants in drinking water systems.

Flint Aid Draws Support

The prospect of aid for Flint gave the bill determined support from the Michigan delegation.

“WRDA is at the top of my list,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said, referring to legislative vehicles to provide assistance to Flint. “I’m working with colleagues. The Michigan delegation is united.”

The traditional elements of a WRDA bill also include local benefits, as Boxer indicated. Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), who helped shape the House version of WRDA, tweeted encouragement Sept. 7 for action.

“Many inland navigation projects on Ohio & Mississippi river system must be addressed. Water transport is critical to our economy,” Gibbs wrote.

Coal Ash in Amendment

The manager’s amendment expected from Inhofe includes language to give states the authority to implement individual coal ash regulations, lawmakers and advocates told Bloomberg BNA.

Inhofe praised the language on the Senate floor Sept. 6, arguing that inclusion bolsters enforcement of the EPA’s 2015 coal ash rule (RIN:2050-AE81).

Some have decried the rule’s self-implementing nature, meaning only civil litigation is likely to lead to enforcement. Inhofe labeled the language “consensus,” and Boxer echoed that description in comments to Bloomberg BNA.

“I think the way we’ve done it is very protective, and the environmental groups don’t object to it,” she said Sept. 7. “We worked with everybody, all the stakeholders before we agreed to do it.”

Boxer said the WRDA legislation is preferable to Senate standalone coal ash legislation (S. 2446), sponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.). The WRDA language is also valuable, Manchin said Sept. 7.

Manchin Supports WRDA Language

“The coal ash language in WRDA gives states the ability to take the lead on setting up their own permitting programs to make sure coal ash is safely recycled and reused under existing EPA health and environment regulations,” Manchin told Bloomberg BNA. “Allowing for these state permitting programs is a critical step toward providing certainty to businesses and utilities.”

Despite Boxer’s assertion, Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said he opposes the WRDA language, while admitting he may not have seen the latest version.

“I‘m confident this language will undermine the EPA coal ash rule,” Schaeffer said Sept. 7. “You get it down to the state level and who knows where it’s going to go. It eliminates certainty. It’s one bird in the hand and half a bird in the bush.”

The American Public Power Association, however, supports the language, said Desmarie Waterhouse, senior government relations director and counsel with the group.

“The WRDA language would give states primary enforcement authority and doesn’t take away the authority of civil litigation,” she told Bloomberg BNA, adding that the WRDA language is much shorter and more streamlined than the Senate bill.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alan Kovski in Washington at akovski@bna.com, Rachel Leven at rleven@bna.com, Dean Scott at dscott@bna.com and Brian Dabbs at bdabbs@bna.com

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

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