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House GOP Assails Clean Water Act as West Virginians Go Without Clean Water

There’s nothing new about House Republicans using the high-stakes negotiations over a government spending bill to pass a grab-bag of ideological provisions. Often, these “riders” are intended to hem in the federal government's environmental regulations, and the ones proposed for the bill currently sitting in the House were no exception. They were, however, an unusually poignant study in dramatic irony: As Republicans on the Appropriations Committee were trying to ram through limitations to the Clean Water Act, over 300,000 West Virginians were lugging home armfuls of bottles because their pipes had been contaminated by a chemical spill.

To be fair, most of these environmental riders had been excised from the bill before the crisis in West Virginia occurred. Those that remain in the current version—among them, one that curbs on the government’s ability to enforce its energy efficient light bulb standard, and another that overrides President Obama’s effort to stop U.S. investment in coal plants overseas—have nothing to do with the chemical flowing through the southern state’s Elk River. But the legislation littering the cutting room floor shows Republicans’ blasé approach to environmental degradation.

In a week when the contamination of a major West Virginia river has served as a painful reminder of how little clean water is left in the strip-mined state, Republicans pushed policies that would further endanger water quality. It’s a timely issue right now: The Environmental Protection Agency is in the midst of trying to clarify how much jurisdiction it has over small streams and wetlands, many of which are used for drinking water in rural communities. (In West Virginia, such streams have often been dirtied past the point of use thanks to mountain top removal and mining waste.) The think tank the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) assembled a list of environmental riders proposed by the GOP this summer. Many concern water. One, NRDC warns, “would permanently prohibit EPA from clarifying which streams and wetlands are protected by the Clean Water Act”; another would “block the Department of Interior (DOI) from enforcing safeguards designed to protect streams from pollution from surface coal mining.”

The riders also protect the energy industry, which has lined the pockets of politicians throughout West Virginia, and across the country, to stave off regulation. Exhibit A: a suggested rider that “would permanently prevent EPA from updating the definition of ‘fill material,’ allowing the mining industry to continue dumping toxic waste from mountaintop removal activities into mountain streams.”

Luckily, these provisions were stripped from the bill now awaiting a vote. But it’s telling that as West Virginia’s residents were being warned away from their water, the majority party in Congress was trying to prop the door open for another disaster.