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July 9 2014 5:22 PM

The Dangerous, Nefarious EPA

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Convinced that everyone at the EPA has gone mad with power.

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

In 2007’s The Simpsons Movie, the Environmental Protection Agency is a nefarious, oppressive government agency headed by a glib, power-crazed apparatchik who plots to destroy Springfield. Judging by the questions posed during a hearing of the House Science Committee today, some in Congress have the impression that this is true of the real, non-cartoon EPA.

The session was supposed to be a chance for committee members to ask about proposed updates on how the EPA implements the Clean Water Act. These updates seek to clarify what waters the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers have jurisdiction over, an issue of much legal contention. The Supreme Court heard a case on the subject most recently in 2006: Property owners in Rapanos v. U.S. contested regulators’ authority over the waters on their lands. The court issued five different opinions, which says something about the confusion surrounding the matter. In 2007 the agencies gave notice that they would try to make improvements by coming up with new standards, “in recognition of the fact that EPA regions and Corps districts need guidance to ensure that jurisdictional determinations, permitting actions, and other relevant actions are consistent with the decision.” Proposed rules made their debut in April of this year, and are open to public comment until October.

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Some Republicans on the House committee do not see the proposal as an attempt to solve a problem, but a grab for power. “The EPA has avoided open debate in its rush to implement the president’s radical agenda,” Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, intoned in his opening statement. The new guidance proposed “does not provide real clarity about what is and isn’t water” but merely allows the EPA to “give itself extraordinary power,” he claimed. Subsequent questions from Smith and some of his peers to Bob Perciasepe, the EPA’s deputy administrator, were attempts to make him admit as much.

The ranking member Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, Smith’s Texas colleague Randy Neugebauer, R, and others are a bit more interested in figuring out what the rules actually say:

Perciasepe’s answers make it clear that the proposed rules do not extend beyond what is already in place in current policies, and that the proposed rules merely try to define terms to be more consistent with hydro-sciences. (Though his at times patronizing tone—“a floodplain is a geography under the science of fluvial-geomorphology,” he declares expansively at one point—is unlikely to have won him many friends.) The clarity of the rules needs to be improved, he admits, but insisting that they are an expansion of EPA powers is incorrect and damaging to the goal of helping people understand them. But his protests fell on some deaf ears. 

Boer Deng is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter

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