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OMAHA (DTN) -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will try to make sense of nearly 800,000 public comments in finalizing the waters of the United States rule early in 2015. Ag groups and others opposed to the rule question whether EPA can make a serious effort to respond to concerns within six months after the public comment period closes in November. In addition, EPA will face added pressure to enforce the rule at a time when the agency is shedding staff.
EPA said in a statement to DTN that the agency has the necessary staff to finish the process on time. EPA also said the process will be made easier because many comments were identical letters sent through mass mailings. "The agencies have brought in field staff and contractor support to help manage this significant workload, and as a result will be able to respond to all comments adequately," EPA said.
Tracy Meehan, former EPA assistant administrator for water, said the rule is likely to face a legal challenge. "They have to get it done under the Administrative Procedure Act and to protect their position in the inevitable litigation to follow," he said. "Moreover, WOTUS is a lot smaller than the carbon rules, which is much larger in terms of the number of comments, etc."
Don Parish, senior director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said he expects bipartisan legislative efforts. "We already are having people on the Hill reach out asking 'where do we go from here?'" he said. "Basically they're saying, 'how can we make this bipartisan?' I am stunned about the level of concern about this proposal. I think you're going to see industry pull out all the stops to pull back on the administration first. If the administration goes final, it will go to litigation."
Conventional wisdom is the Obama administration is unlikely to sign Clean Water Act bills from a Republican Congress. In addition, once finalized, an expansion of EPA authority would happen at a time when the agency is cutting staff through employee buyouts. Agency staffing is expected to be at its lowest level since the late 1980s.
Ray Kagel, a former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers field officer and owner of Idaho-based Kagel Engineering, said staff cuts could make it difficult to keep up with the new rule. "The EPA Corps of Engineers are currently and always have been understaffed to fully administer and enforce Section 404 CWA regulations," he said.
When Kagel worked for USACE, low staff numbers led to many complaints and violators going untouched. "If the new rules and definition of WOTUS are implemented, then I suspect that the agencies will indeed seek bigger budgets from Congress for more personnel," said Kagel.
Ethan Mathews, director of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association, said EPA needs to make many changes to the rule to address agricultural concerns. "As NCGA indicated in our comments on the WOTUS proposed rule, EPA's proposal will require substantial revision before it can meet the agency's stated goal of providing certainty to the regulated community," he said.
OTHER AG ISSUES
Agriculture interest groups have their eyes on potential movement on Endangered Species Act reform, as well as the recently proposed National Ambient Air Quality standards for low-level ozone pollution.