Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy visited Bill Heffernan’s corn and soybean farm east of Rocheport, Missouri on Wednesday and will be speaking to a group of Agribusiness leaders in Kansas City on Thursday to clarify the agency’s proposed rule covering the Waters of the United States. The purpose of her visit is to blunt some of the harsh criticism the agency has received from the farm community over this proposed rule. McCarthy said, “Our challenge is to make sure that we work through challenges and concerns that the agriculture community has, that we listen to those concerns, and we produce rules that help us do our mission which is to protect public health, the environment, drinking water supplies and natural resources that we all rely on.”
Before leaving Washington, she told reporters the claims made by farm groups are simply not true. She said the rule will not cover puddles or ditches, “In this proposal, for the first time ever, we are making it clear we do not regulate all ditches.” McCarthy also flatly denied that the proposal would allow the agency to regulate ground water, “That is simply not true. Our proposal is very clear, we do not regulate groundwater or even drainage tile systems.” She also said claims that farmers would have to get permits are not true.
McCarthy went on to say that the rule will not require farmers to change their farming practices, “All normal farming practices are exempt, period. We don’t shrink current exemptions; in fact, we have expanded exemptions.” She added that more than 56 conservation practices have been added to the list of approved farming practices.
But what is a regular farming practice? A provision of the rule known as the “interpretive rule” has many farm groups worried. NCGA asks EPA to withdraw the Interpretive Rule and work with the ag community to develop an alternative approach that would allow for farmer comment. More than 90 organizations, led by the National Pork Producers Council and American Farm Bureau Federation, say the interpretive rule binds farmers and ranchers with new, specific, legal obligations under the Clean Water Act.
The rule is long and complex – 88 pages in the Federal Register. Among other things, it clarifies that the Clean Water Act protects “most seasonal and rain-dependent streams” as well as “wetlands near rivers and streams” and other types of waterways. NCBA Environmental Council Ashley McDonald says one of the 56 exempted practices is prescribed grazing – so it makes grazing a discharge activity – which means cattle producers would be required to obtain a permit to graze unless they have a NRCS-approved grazing plan.
McCarthy maintained that there is support for the rule among many in agriculture, “We have support from many famers, but their voices are being drowned out by those who enjoy the anxiety that is created, and it gives more visibility to certain groups.” The problem, according to Don Parrish, senior director of regulatory affairs at the American Farm Bureau Federation, is that the administrator’s public statements don’t match up with what the rule itself says. “The EPA may say ‘We don’t intend for that to happen,’ but I can’t take that to court,” Parrish said. “The words differ in black and white from what she is saying. The words she says to the press will not be what stands up in court.” Republicans in Congress have introduced legislation to prevent the Obama administration from finalizing the rule.