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Obama urged to put teeth back in Clean Water Act

A study by two House lawmakers blamed a high court ruling for the weakened law. Two EPA officials disagreed.

The Environmental Protection Agency has ignored hundreds of potential Clean Water Act violations since a 2006 Supreme Court decision weakened the law, said two lawmakers who called on President-elect Barack Obama to restore the program's "effectiveness and integrity."

Hundreds of oil spills are among the cases dropped or not investigated by the agency, said Reps. Henry Waxman (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and James Oberstar (D., Minn.), chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Waxman and Oberstar, who released the results of their joint investigation in a letter to Obama, blamed lax enforcement in part on a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said the Clean Water Act applied only to wetlands and tributaries with a close connection to a river, lake, or other navigable waterway.

The court opinion led the agency to abandon more than 500 potential cases, about half of the agency's annual clean-water-enforcement docket, according to agency memos and e-mail obtained by House investigators.

Two EPA officials criticized the report. It "fails to evaluate the many EPA initiatives under way to provide aggressive enforcement of our Clean Water Act programs," Benjamin H. Grumbles, assistant administrator for water, and Granta Nakayama, assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance, said in a statement.

The agency has reached agreements in the last year with Clean Water Act violators to invest an estimated $3 billion in pollution controls, Grumbles and Nakayama said.

Waxman and Oberstar in August subpoenaed the EPA documents related to clean-water enforcement. The documents produced so far show "a drastic deterioration" of the agency's clean-water enforcement since 2006, according to a summary of the investigation.

In one case, the lawmakers said a political appointee unsuccessfully tried to reverse a scientific determination by career staff that portions of the Santa Cruz River in Arizona were "traditional navigable waters."

Oberstar said legislation would be needed to restore Clean Water Act protections.

Waxman, who will become chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee next month, has said he would make environmental issues a top priority.

Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club's environmental-quality program, called the Waxman-Oberstar report "dramatic proof" that Congress needs to "re-establish the Clean Water Act."

"It is absolutely shocking," Hopkins said in a statement, "that more than 35 years after passage of the Clean Water Act, the EPA finds itself unable to take action to protect our waters against oil spills, illegal waste discharges and other harmful pollution."