Rep. Jon Mica, R-Winter Park, has introduced the “Clean Water for Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011″ (.pdf), a bill that aims to “amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to preserve the authority of each State to make determinations relating to the State’s water quality standards, and for other purposes.” In other words, Mica’s bill would rewrite the Clean Water Act — removing the EPA’s authority to object to state-approved permits and revise state water quality standards.

The bill would also limit the agency’s authority to veto dredge-and-fill permits, which some conservationists argue could be a threat to public health.

Among its provisions, the bill would remove the EPA’s authority to object to state-approved permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, which was put in place to manage discharges of pollutants into waterways. The EPA would also lose the ability to revise state water quality standards, and especially controversial measures considering the agency’s much-touted numeric nutrient criteria, a set of standards that aim to enhance pollution regulations in Florida waterways. The criteria are revered by environmentalists and abhorred by state lawmakers and industry heads who’d prefer not to increase costs simply for the sake of the environment.

Stacey Detweiler, a government relations representative for the conservation group American Rivers, writes that the bill “turns the Clean Water Act on its head by removing important checks on state programs” in a blog post published on the organization’s website.

Katherine Baer, senior director of the clean water program for American Rivers, says the bill amounts to nothing short of an assault on clean water. “It’s an attempt to turn the clock back to the days before the Clean Water Act when clean water protections were simply a patchwork of rules,” says Baer.

Baer says that the bill aims to switch the balance between the state and the feds. “The federal Clean Water Act was carefully crafted to give the states the lead … but if they don’t, the EPA can step in,” she says.

Florida’s controversial nutrient criteria, for example, are nothing new — and certainly no surprise to the state Department of Environmental Protection, as many lawmakers and industry heads have argued. “Florida has had eleven years on those criteria. … They’ve certainly had time to work on creating efficient standards, and they haven’t. So the federal government should be able to.”

According to Baer, one of the most concerning portions of Mica’s bill is the attempt to render the EPA’s authority to veto certain projects moot. She argues that the decision could lead to an adverse impact on public health, as the EPA only uses its veto power in extreme cases, to halt projects that could cause significant danger. In fact, says Baer, the EPA has only vetoed such permits on 13 occasions.

“Could this bill render certain EPA decisions or regulations moot? That’s not known yet,” says Baer. “But the EPA uses its authority in a very useful way. … This would turn back the clock.”

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