Senate passes water infrastructure bill
OREANDA-NEWS. September 16, 2016. The US Senate passed a bill today authorizing over \\$10.6bn in funding for 30 water resource infrastructure projects.
The Senate voted 95-3 to pass the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2016, which authorizes the US Army Corps of Engineers to carry out navigation, flood control, and other water resource projects. The bill, S. 2848, must still be reconciled with a House version that has not yet come up for a floor vote.
Republican lawmakers were also able to attach a controversial amendment giving states more oversight over coal ash disposal permitting and enforcement. The amendment would adjust the Solid Waste Disposal Act to allow states to substitute their own plans for the EPA's coal combustion residuals rule, which the agency finalized in April 2015.
Under the amendment, states would have to submit their plans to the EPA, which would then have 90 days to decide whether the rules meet federal standards. The state standards would have to be "at least as protective" as federal standards.
Lawmakers hope the amendment will clarify the regulatory process and leave states and utilities less vulnerable to lawsuits.
"There is no other environmental regulation enforced so solely through private lawsuits, which is what we are seeing" with the coal ash rule, senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said.
But environmental groups have protested that the bill as amended would lead to lax and unclear standards.
"The proposed legislation could effectively remove the EPA rule's federal minimum standards, which could lead to a patchwork of regulatory requirements that vary from one state to another," the Environmental Integrity Project and the Waterkeeper Alliance said in a letter last week to bill sponsors James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) and Barbara Boxer (D-California).
The bill's passage puts Congress closer to getting back to a regular schedule of WRDA authorization packages every few years. The last bill was passed in 2014, but prior to that there had been no legislation since 2007.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee passed a version of the legislation, H.R. 5303, in May. The bill could come to the House floor as soon as this month, the committee said. Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA) believes Congress can move a consolidated version of the bill to President Barack Obama before the end of the year.
The House bill is narrower than S. 2848. It is focused on the authorization of US Army Corps of Engineers water resource development projects and does not contain a coal ash rider. The Senate version also contains money to help Flint, Michigan, and other communities dealing with lead contaminated water supplies, while the House bill does not. Inhofe pledged to uphold the Senate language in conference committee to settle differences between the bills.
The Senate measure authorizes projects to widen and deepen a number of ports to handle the larger container ships that are being used since expansions to the Panama Canal were completed in June.
The bill will also allocate \\$7.5mn for Federal Emergency Management Agency programs for the repair, removal or rehabilitation of hazardous dams.
Capito said the dam improvements would help to prevent floods like the one that ravaged West Virginia in June. That bout of flooding slowed barge traffic and kept docks from loading on inland waterways that are key to transporting coal through the US. It also wiped out railroad transportation in certain parts of the state.