Publication / Inside EPA
January 7, 2014
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Democrats Seek To Delay Vote On Waste Bill

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) is urging Republicans to delay a vote scheduled for later this week on H.R. 2279, a package of measures that will limit EPA’s waste management authorities, saying it will give GOP lawmakers time to hold a long-promised meeting with Defense Department (DOD) officials who are concerned over provisions waiving sovereign immunity to allow states to enforce cleanup remedies at federal sites.

“According to Department lawyers, the bill would disrupt the national priority scheme in which the most contaminated federal sites are cleaned up first. It would increase litigation and increase the likelihood of conflict between the states and federal facilities,” Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, wrote in a Jan. 7 letter to Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), the bill’s lead sponsor and the chairman of the subcommittee on environment and the economy.

DOD officials have previously indicated that the waiver of sovereign immunity is “unneeded” because the bill’s objectives are already addressed by the existing waiver in Superfund law.

Waxman’s call for a delay suggests the legislation is likely to face strong opposition from Democrats and strong opposition — possibly even a veto threat — from the White House.

The dispute is one of several the bill is likely to face as Republicans advance the package through the Rules Committee, slated for Jan. 8, with a floor vote expected as soon as Jan. 9.

As crafted for Rules Committee consideration, H.R. 2279 includes language from three measures that advanced through the energy committee last summer. The underlying bill, H.R. 2279, eliminated mandatory requirements for EPAto review — and update if necessary — its rules issued under both the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Superfund law.

Democrats and environmentalists have charged that the bill language eliminating the review requirement would undermine a recent ruling that upheld the review requirement and drove EPA to seek a deal with environmentalists to complete its long-awaited coal ash rule this year. Eliminating the review requirement “cuts off the one avenue available to communities to deal with substandard coal ash disposal sites by short-circuiting the pending legal action initiated by them after years of inaction,” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) says in a statement to Inside EPA.

The legislative package also includes language from H.R. 2318, which explicitly waives sovereign immunity to allow states to sue federal agencies over remedies selected at Superfund and federal facility sites — the provision Waxman and the federal agencies are questioning, and from H.R. 2226, which elevates states’ roles in listing and selecting cleanup remedies at Superfund sites.

All three bills were approved by the House energy committee last summer on largely party-line votes after EPA charged that many of the provisions were unneeded. Democrats and environmentalists were more critical, saying that some provisions could undercut cleanups, increase litigation and remove necessary protections.

While Republicans tout the measures as needed to bolster state powers, some states have also voiced concern that the measures could have unintended effects, like increasing litigation and delaying cleanups.

And Waxman adds that DOD staff is concerned that the measure would give states too much control over federal clean-up tasks and would strain the already limited budget.

In his letter, Waxman cites hearing transcripts to note that Shimkus has publicly committed to meet with DOD staff to discuss the need for the bill and how to address any concerns but that the chairman has not held such a meeting.

“The result is that we missed an important opportunity to address legitimate concerns and modify the legislation,” Waxman says. “If you would delay floor consideration and engage relevant stakeholders I’d be pleased to work with you to develop legislation that will improve the Superfund program and can become law,” he says.