Influential House conservatives Wednesday introduced a revised Clean Water Act that would give Great Lakes states the option of adopting or abandoning tough and controversial new anti-pollution regulations.
In addition, the bill would weaken many long-standing anti-pollution efforts -- including advisories that warn people when fish are too contaminated to eat.
And, in response to a landmark legal case from Wyoming County, the bill would make it easier for farmers to spread manure without worrying that they might be polluting water.
Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the bill "focuses on continuing and improving the existing clean-water programs while reducing the existing regulatory burdens."
Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, R-Utica, said the so-called "bipartisan alternative" offered by Shuster appeared to be on a fast track to passage -- even though it greatly weakens federal water pollution protections.
In making the Great Lakes Initiative voluntary, the bill answers the concerns of officials such as Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Carl J. Calabrese who have said that the Great Lakes crackdown would force municipalities to spend tens of millions of dollars on new wastewater treatment plants.
Burkhard Mausberg, executive director of Great Lakes United, termed the move "a federal cop-out. We're never going to have a clean Great Lakes without general federal oversight."
The bill also would require federal officials to do a scientific risk assessment before placing further limits on toxic discharges and would make the Environmental Protection Agency's fish advisories voluntary, rather than something that states must implement when fish are contaminated.
Calling the bill "a retreat rather than an advance," Boehlert said: "I personally want to know if the fish I'm eating is safe."
In addition, the bill would prevent the EPA from identifying farm manure spreaders as "point sources" of water pollution.
In a case involving Southview Farms of Wyoming County, a federal appeals court recently ruled that such equipment is a point source, thereby making it subject to tougher anti-pollution standards.
The bill would not affect the Southview Farms case, which is currently on appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court. But it would ease the concerns of farmers nationwide, said Richard Popp, one of the owners of Southview Farms.
Popp said several influential representatives -- including Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Rep. Bill Paxon, R-Amherst -- were concerned about the impact of the Southview Farms case.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, attacked the legislation, which is intended to replace the expiring federal Clean Water Act and reauthorize $3 billion in funding for water treatment facilities nationwide.