Integrated Planning and Permitting Framework: An Opportunity for EPA to Provide Communities with Flexibility to Make Smart Investments in Water Quality
2167 Rayburn House Office Building
Summary of Subject Matter
Chairman Bob Gibbs (R-OH)
July 24, 2014
I would like to welcome everyone to our hearing today. This is a follow-up to hearings we held last Congress on EPA’s integrated planning framework.
In our previous hearings, we heard about how communities all across the Nation are facing increasing regulatory, enforcement, and financial pressures, not only to address sewer overflows and other aging wastewater infrastructure issues, but also to deal with numerous other burdensome regulatory issues that recently have become national priorities. These include more stringent and widespread regulation of stormwater discharges, nutrients and other pollutants, total maximum daily loads, and public drinking water systems, which could lead to many communities having to install and operate, at great expense, advanced treatment, removal, and prevention technologies.
All of these initiatives are piling on additional layers of regulatory requirements and economic burdens that our communities have to somehow deal with. A large portion of these regulatory mandates are going unfunded by the federal and state governments, with the result that many municipalities have had to make substantial increases in investments in wastewater and public water infrastructure in recent years. Local communities and ratepayers are now increasingly getting economically tapped out.
In response to some of these issues, EPA developed an integrated planning and permitting policy in 2012 that was intended to provide some flexibility in how communities manage their regulatory and enforcement mandates under the Clean Water Act. The policy outlines how communities can prioritize multiple Clean Water Act obligations and develop plans for addressing those obligations in a flexible manner, to reduce their cost burdens.
At our earlier hearings, we heard from witnesses about implementation of the policy. Concerns they raised included inadequate consideration of strained municipal budgets and affordability, especially in setting compliance timelines; the continued focus on using enforcement mechanisms in the integrated planning process, rather than permits; and insufficient “regulatory flexibility” to adapt to new or changed circumstances. Some of the witnesses also urged EPA to be more proactive and collaboratively assist communities, through technical assistance and pilot demonstration projects, to develop flexible, practical, and affordable integrated plans.
I am concerned that two years have passed since EPA released the final policy, and little seems to have been done to successfully implement it. I understand that, while several local governments are working on integrated plans, no such plans have been approved and one has been disapproved.
EPA still has not done enough to define the roles and responsibilities of EPA, the states, and communities in implementing the policy, and has not provided clear standards for approval of integrated plans.
And it appears that some at EPA—particularly in a number of the agency’s regional offices—still may not be willing to provide flexibility to communities and limit EPA’s enforcement efforts, even when the goal is to achieve more efficient compliance with the Clean Water Act.
A continued emphasis on an enforcement approach, including consent decrees, and a resistance to considering affordability and innovative approaches to addressing water quality issues will undermine the flexibility that EPA is ostensibly seeking to provide under this policy.
However, there might be some cause for optimism that EPA is finally starting to become more supportive of implementing the integrated planning policy. I am pleased that, back in May, EPA announced the availability of some federal funding to a few communities for technical assistance in developing municipal integrated plans. This will be an important first step in demonstrating support for and implementing the policy, although EPA still needs to do more. To help with this, I, jointly with Ranking Member Bishop, have written letters to the House Appropriations Committee requesting their support in directing EPA resources towards pilot projects to assist communities in developing integrated plans.
There also are several legislative proposals under development that attempt to address various issues and concerns related to EPA’s integrated planning initiative. These proposals include H.R. 2707, the “Clean Water Compliance and Ratepayer Affordability Act of 2013”, introduced by Congressman Chabot; H.R. 3862, the “Clean Water Affordability Act of 2014”, introduced by Congressman Latta; and the draft bill entitled the “Water Quality Improvement Act of 2013” being circulated by members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, including Mayor Berger, who is one of our witnesses today.
I would like to hear from today’s witnesses about their thoughts on EPA’s implementation of the integrated planning policy to date, and whether EPA has adequately addressed their concerns.
In addition, I would like to hear from our witnesses about the pending legislative proposals, and how specifically the proposals could help address their concerns and any impediments that stand in the way of making this an effective initiative for both communities and the regulators.
It is time for the national clean water strategy to evolve from a one-size-fits-all mandate and enforcement approach to an integrated strategy that recognizes the individual public health needs and water quality benefits of water and wastewater utilities, and the resource limitations of communities.
Our goal is clean water, and that is best achieved by focusing more on facilitating compliance and less on punitive enforcement mechanisms.
Hopefully, this initiative will truly give our communities the flexibility they need to prioritize their water quality requirements and address the huge unfunded costs associated with the growing number of mandates stemming from EPA water rules and enforcement actions.
Lastly, I should mention that we had invited EPA to participate in this hearing, in order to get the agency’s perspectives on implementing the policy. Unfortunately, however, EPA declined to participate due to what the agency said were other commitments.
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