Balanced Approach Is Necessary

Posted April 21, 2004 at 10:14am

America is blessed with an abundance of land and water resources. These resources support food production, energy production, manufacturing and transportation. They also support recreation and sustain our natural environment. The challenge we all face is to both manage and develop our resources.

We must sustain our economy while also protecting our resources, thus sustaining the natural environment as well. To maintain this balance, we cannot let one value trump the other. We cannot let economic development impair environmental sustainability. But we also cannot let environmental protection shut down economic development.

Congress has enacted federal environmental laws to maintain this balance. For example, our federal laws allow cities and manufacturers to discharge wastewater into rivers, but it must be treated using the best technology available and must not impair water quality.

Our federal laws encourage the use of waterways as a low-cost, efficient transportation alternative, but also provide for fish passage. Our federal laws allow development in wetlands, but environmental damage must be mitigated if the wetlands are subject to federal jurisdiction.

We run into obstacles, however, when implementing these laws. Problems arise when environmental compliance places an overwhelming burden on our communities. Problems arise when environmental extremists file lawsuits to persuade judges to shut down economic activity on land and water. Problems arise when agency officials forget to maintain a balanced approach.

Most agency officials are hard-working and helpful, and do their best to implement the laws as written. Unfortunately, some believe that it is their mission to prevent any impact on the environment and try to stretch their authority to achieve that agenda.

Congress must act to address these problems. Congress should provide federal agencies the necessary authority to help American citizens develop water resources and protect the environment. Congress should provide assistance to reduce the burdens of environmental compliance. Congress should change laws to correct unintended consequences. Finally, Congress should actively oversee the implementation of our federal laws to ensure that legislative intent is upheld.

As its name suggests, the subcommittee that I chair, water resources and environment, deals with these issues every day. For example, during the first session of this Congress, the subcommittee devoted much of its time to developing the Water Resources Development Act of 2003.

This legislation authorizes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to carry out projects managing, using and restoring water resources. Flood protection projects to safeguard our cities, towns and farms from the devastating effects of having too much water in the wrong place at the wrong time are authorized by this bill, as are navigation projects to allow continued and expanded use of our ports and waterways for efficient transportation of goods.

In addition, this bill also authorizes environmental restoration projects to help recover aquatic ecosystem functions and values that were impaired in the past. This legislation, which embodies a balanced approach to water resources development and environmental protection, received overwhelming support when it passed the House of Representatives in September 2003.

The subcommittee has also taken action to help states and local governments meet the challenges of environmental compliance. For example, the subcommittee developed legislation to help states and local governments improve the infrastructure that keeps our waterways clean and to provide more flexible tools for reducing water pollution.

The Water Quality Financing Act provides $20 billion in federal assistance to help states and local governments make needed infrastructure improvements such as increasing the level of sewage treatment, eliminating combined sewer overflows, and managing storm water discharges. The act also encourages infrastructure investment by the private sector, the development of innovative technologies, and alternative approaches to water quality improvement. Finally, it provides more flexible financing tools to meet the needs of disadvantaged communities.

In all, the Water Quality Financing Act affirms that the federal government does have a role in helping states and local governments improve wastewater infrastructure. Impacts on water quality from human activity are unavoidable. Mitigating those impacts and keeping our nation’s waters clean is a challenge that requires the commitment and effort of all levels of government.

Congress sometimes must change our federal laws when there are unintended consequences. For example, the subcommittee worked with other subcommittees to develop the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act, which President Bush signed into law in January 2002. That law was necessary to eliminate barriers to the economic redevelopment of abandoned, lightly contaminated properties caused by Superfund legislation’s liability scheme. That law also amended Superfund liability to protect small businesses from abusive litigation.

The subcommittee has taken an active role in overseeing agency activities as well. Just recently, we held a hearing on the inconsistent regulation of wetlands and other waters by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This hearing, as well as others the subcommittee has held, provided stark examples of how individual agency employees can wreak havoc with people’s lives.

One witness wanted to improve the drainage on his corn farm. He was told he needed to pay $77,000 to mitigate disturbances to land that is already under cultivation. That sum of money was unaffordable for him if he wanted to maintain a viable family farm. No one discussed with him the fact that ordinary farming activities are exempt from regulation.

Another witness wanted to expand his small business by building a new facility on land he purchased for that purpose. He was told he needed to spend more than $20,000 on mitigation, even though the wetlands on his land are isolated.

All of the witnesses at the hearing supported protecting high-quality wetlands, but most expressed concern that our agencies spend very little time and effort preserving wetlands that provide substantial ecological functions and values. Incredible amounts of time, however, are spent trying to stop economic activity in small, isolated wetlands located in areas that are already under cultivation or development.

Finding the correct balance between economic development and environmental protection can be controversial. But that does not mean Congress should avoid the issue. By improving the nation’s infrastructure, providing the necessary financial assistance, clarifying our environmental laws and overseeing implementation by federal agencies, Congress has a significant role to play both in helping our economy and improving our environment.

Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on water resources and environment.