By Cindy Dunn
Last month, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) joined forces with 14 of his Senate colleagues in opposing a new Environmental Protection Agency rule that would help protect the drinking water of 117 million Americans, including eight million Pennsylvanians, by restoring the Clean Water Act to its original purpose.
Toomey accused the EPA of trying to regulate "puddles in your garden" and called the rule a "terrifying power grab" that would curb economic growth.
Some background is in order. A bipartisan Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 in response to national concern about widespread dumping of raw sewage and industrial pollution into our waterways. Pollution levels were so high at the time that Ohio's Cuyahoga River caught fire, and Lake Erie was considered "dead" by many.
The act was intended to restore and protect the nation's waters - from creeks and wetlands to roaring rivers - from toxic pollution and destruction. For almost 30 years, it did just that. Regrettably, two Supreme Court decisions removed some waters from federal protection and caused confusion over which waters remain protected.
The new proposed EPA rule, which is based on an extensive scientific report, clarifies which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act and restores coverage to roughly two million miles of seasonal and rain-dependent streams and 20 million acres of wetlands. The rule would provide industry with more certainty as to which waters are governed by the act, an important classification that, Toomey admits, is currently ambiguous. The rule is open for public comment through July 21 at http://www2.epa.gov/uswaters.
These streams and wetlands provide numerous benefits to communities, including quality drinking water, reduced flooding, pollutant removal, and groundwater and stream recharge. Together, these benefits protect health and property for humans, and habitat for fish and wildlife.
Loss of these ecosystem services would require us to build multimillion-dollar substitutes, including dikes, levees, and drinking-water treatment facilities. Surely the senator would agree that it makes little economic sense to pay for services we're already getting for free.
In Pennsylvania, the new rule means strengthening protection of 49,000 miles of waterways - waterways that are the headwaters of the Susquehanna, Schuylkill, and Delaware Rivers, places where we swim, fish, and play. In 2011, more than 90 million Americans enjoyed fishing, hunting, and other wildlife-associated recreation and contributed $145 billion to the nation's economy. Clean water is essential not just for a strong outdoor economy, but also for farmers growing healthy food and for many manufacturing industries.
While our Clean Streams Law in Pennsylvania provides protections for these waters, the EPA's proposed rule would set a minimum federal standard for clean water protections nationwide and buttress existing statewide standards. While some are branding the rule as government overreach, the EPA's proposal does not expand the scope of waters historically protected by the Clean Water Act, it preserves exemptions for agriculture, and it even adds new exemptions.
Simply put, the EPA is looking to send a strong signal to industry that the cops are back on the beat. As an EPA lawyer put it, "When companies figure out the cops can't operate, they start remembering how much cheaper it is to just dump stuff in a nearby creek."
Instead of fighting for you and the health of your family, Toomey appears to be doing the bidding of polluters who want less regulation and fewer rules of the road. Pennsylvanians can ill afford to have their drinking water compromised by an ideology that puts economic gain for the few above clean water for everyone.