Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) spoke with E&E Daily last week about several of the most controversial water issues now before Congress and the Obama administration — debates in which he continues to play a lead role, as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee’s water subpanel.
What follows are some highlights of that conversation.
E&E: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) recently filed a bill that would sharply restrict EPA’s regulatory reach under the Clean Water Act (Greenwire, Feb. 17). What do you think of that bill and of the ongoing debate over how much of the nation’s waters and wetlands should be federally protected?
Cardin: Senator Paul’s views, I believe, are basically an outlier’s view — trying to get the federal government from protecting legitimate national interests. I think his view is that the federal government does not have a responsibility for the public health of the people of our country, so therefore, it’s not a federal responsibility for clean air or clean water.
Well, we can point to the cost-benefit ratios of the Clean Water and Clean Air Act. And it’s amazing. It’s about $1 of requirements produce about $40 of savings. That’s a pretty good ratio. We’re talking about direct savings of people being able to work, stay out of hospitals and live. That’s what we’re talking about.
What Senator Paul would do would be to say, “Let’s roll that back.” If you eliminate the federal jurisdiction, you’re basically saying that they’re being unregulated. So you’re going to have water bodies that are contaminated, that clearly are stressed under the current definition of the Clean Water Act, that will go without any remedy. That will have a major impact well beyond that local community. It will have a major impact on the public health. And the only jurisdiction that can effectively do this is the federal government.
Maryland has taken very aggressive steps to protect the environment. But Marylanders still get polluted air because of what happens in other states. We’ve taken aggressive steps on the Chesapeake Bay. The reason we’ve been effective is because it’s a regional effort — not a one-state effort. So you can’t do this on a state basis. You need a national framework, and that’s what the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act have done. I just have a fundamental disagreement with Senator Paul as to the value of the Clean Water Act. I do remember when rivers caught fire. I do remember when beach closures were happening on a very regular basis. We still have too many beach closures, which means we have to do more, not less, to protect the public health.
E&E: On the same subject, the EPA recently sent a new regulatory policy statement to the White House Office of Management and Budget for final review that would expand the number of streams and wetlands that are federally protected — or as proponents would say, restore the Clean Water Act protections rolled back in the 1990s following two muddled Supreme Court decisions. How do you see these new policies playing out?
Cardin: There is some leeway within the Supreme Court decisions. I disagree with the Supreme Court decision. I co-sponsored legislation that would go back to the original intent of Congress as it relates to “navigable waters” (what is explicitly covered under the Clean Water Act) and what should be covered under the Clean Water Act. We’re just trying to go back to how the law was as we all thought it was. I’m all for the administration doing what they can. They can’t override a Supreme Court decision. Only we can do that by giving them the authority that they need.
E&E: There’s been talk about the Chesapeake Bay — especially from the farm community — that there will be some economic contraction if EPA’s massive Chesapeake Bay pollution reduction program goes forward. Some amount of agriculture will be driven from the six-state, 64,000-square-mile watershed. In your view, how much of that is true, and to what extent is that acceptable?
Cardin: Well, I’m not so sure that’s the mainstream thought among farmers. I think farmers in Maryland, farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, want to do the right thing for the Chesapeake Bay. They understand the uniqueness of our region, the responsibility we have not just locally but nationally as guardians and protectors of the bay. So I think they understand the challenge and most believe, as I do, that we can have viable agriculture in our watershed in a way that preserves the Chesapeake Bay for future generations. I tell my farmers frequently: I’d much rather have farming activities than have land developed into residential properties. I’d rather have farming activities than have heavy industry that could cause pollution in the bay.
So everything is relative. But the facts are nasty things, and we have to go by the facts. And that’s why we want to be judged by the best science here and not by emotion. Agriculture is still the largest source of pollution going into the Chesapeake Bay, and that needs to be addressed, because science tells us we can do better and farmers have told us we can do better. We have many farmers who have done extraordinary things to protect the Chesapeake Bay — the buffer zones, the crop rotations, all the different things they’ve done — and they are very viable farming activities, doing extremely well competitively. And yet there are other farmers not doing what they should be doing. So it’s not fair to those farmers who are doing the right thing — in a very economic sense — and those farmers that are not.
We thought it’s right, because part of this goes well beyond an individual farmer, that there should be some assistance, some help. That’s why the farm bill recognizes the needs of farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and provides technical assistance and help in dealing with the known scientific technologies that can allow for less pollution going into the bay without affecting the viability of a farming activity. That’s what we want to be done in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
But I want to go one step further. And as you may be aware, I have recommended another revenue source for farmers, because farmers can even take it up to another level. They can actually achieve some additional reductions in pollution beyond what is expected from their operations. … It costs hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars to upgrade wastewater treatment plants in order to get the marginal benefits we need to prevent pollution of the bay. Those marginal benefits are much smaller than the amount that you can get from farming reductions.
However, if you allow farmers to take it up another level, beyond what we need from them, and then be able to sell that credit to the wastewater treatment manager or local jurisdiction, they’re willing to pay a lot more to the farmer than it costs the farmer, because that’s a lot cheaper than it costs to upgrade the marginal benefits of the wastewater treatment plant. That gives the farmers a source of income.
Working with my colleagues, we think we can set this up in a way that produces predictable revenue to a farmer that would make it even more beneficial, economically, for farming activities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The bottom line is, you can practice great farming under science to protect the bay and have a viable operation. We can do it in a way that we can help the farmer and even give the farmer additional economic incentives for doing the right thing.
E&E: Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D) recently wrote a letter disapproving of the Maryland Environmental Law Clinic, a publicly funded school, assisting a national environmental group’s pollution lawsuit against an Eastern Shore chicken farmer that raises poultry for Perdue. O’Malley complained about the “ongoing injustice” and referred to the suit as “costly litigation of questionable merit.” What’s your view?
Cardin: Well, I’m not going to get into the merits of the particular case, because I know a little bit about it, but I generally do not comment on the merits of cases. … But as a person who has a lot to do with the Maryland Law School and training of lawyers and the clinical programs themselves, I think it’s ill-advised for elected officials to try to interfere with the independence of our legal system. So I take a hands-off attitude on the independence of our legal system.
E&E: What do you hear about President Obama’s nomination of Ken Kopocis for EPA water chief, which has been held up by some Senate Republicans since June?
Cardin: It’s ridiculous. I mean, Ken is a — I haven’t met a single senator who believes that he isn’t qualified for the position. He’s the ideal person for this position. He should have been confirmed well before now. We know that there’s individual senator concern, which to me is an abuse of the process. He should have been confirmed by now.
E&E: The country seems to be in an impossible situation when it comes to aging, neglected water infrastructure. There are trillions of dollars in needed upgrades and expansions of underground pipelines and treatment plants over the next 25 years and huge federal mandates on cities requiring hundreds of millions of dollars or billions in repairs. Government can’t pay because it’s broke. Rates have to go up by all accounts, but ratepayers can’t pay because of the poor economy. How do you resolve this situation?
Cardin: What worries me is there will be delays upon delays upon delays, and we have more water leakage and more water main breaks and failures. That’s what I see happening. And you’re right, the price tags are beyond the capacity of the governments. The federal government’s not putting enough money into the equation, and the ratepayers will revolt if you try to increase the rates at too rapid of a basis.
I think all of the above has to be done. I think the rates are going to have to go up. I think the federal government’s going to have to be a more aggressive partner. And I think the locals are going to have to put a higher priority on replacing and repairing their water infrastructure. So I think all of the above is going to have to be part of the answer.