McCain Thrilled About Clean Water Act Injunction, but Critics Say He’s Just Playing Politics

While Arizona Senator John McCain is “pleased” that a federal judge in North Dakota issued an injunction against the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Rule, his critics – some of whom have their own, separate concerns about the ruling – say his reasoning is just another example of how he plays politics with the environment.

McCain has always been a vocal critic of the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers’ Clean Water Rule, which redefines what “waters of the United States” fall under the Clean Water Act, calling it another example of federal overreach that will stifle industry across the state.

“The rule essentially rewrites the Clean Water Act, which is meant to protect rivers and large waterbodies, and applies the law’s hefty fines and strict compliance to activities occurring near dry desert washes or certain ditches,” the senator said in a statement.

“I continue to hear from a number of Arizona farmers, ranchers, and homebuilders who are alarmed that the rule will put their jobs under the thumb of the EPA. In Arizona, these sectors are vital to our state’s economy.”

But Sandy Bahr of the Arizona Sierra Club says this is just classic McCain: voting against environmental protection and for big-industry interests.

“This is pretty consistent with his record, and he is running for election. So I’m sure he’s using every situation possible to demonstrate that he’s a true believer in opposing anything the EPA does, or any environmental protection.”

She says citizens need only look at his support for the land exchange that gave an international mining company rights to mine copper from Oak Flat, a sacred area to Native American tribes in the region and popular recreation area, or his opposition to the mineral withdrawal around the Grand Canyon that put a prohibition on any new uranium mines in the area for 20 years.

“He’s taken a trajectory that is very anti-environmental,” she adds, and “he’s actively promoting harmful things that are hurting the environment.”

When Amy Atwood, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, says she sees politicians like McCain lamenting any and all environmental protection, she never hears them “actually articulate one legitimate concern.” Instead, she’s sees a “political situation where industry has gone to friendly states and persuaded them to advocate on their behalf against any federal regulations that are about the environment.”

And then if new regulations are proposed, “the politicians have a huge temper tantrum because they don’t want to give up an inch to this [presidential] administration. They’re like kids in a sand box.”

Politicians like McCain always says environmental protection will be bad for the agricultural industry, Bahr says, “but I don’t get it.” If everyone can pollute as much as they want, “how is that good for industry?”

But that’s not to say there aren’t plenty of things to criticize in this regulation, she adds.

“When the EPA came out with the final rule, it made some changes that actually narrowed the scope of the rule,” she says, “so some environmental groups, including us, are challenging the scope of the rule.”

Bahr feels the EPA “blew it” by changing the language of the rule so that some places that previously were covered under the Clean Water Act were no longer protected, but she cautions against “throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We just want them to fix it.”

Ironically, adds Atwood, even though the rule was supposed to both extend the reach of the act and clarify which waters were protected,  it arguably makes things even less clear and our water systems less protected.
While the EPA is taking heat from environmentalists – a handful of groups have sued and demanded it extend the scope of the Clean Water Rule – the most prominent challenge it faces comes from the 13 states, including Arizona, that are suing the federal agency for overstepping its boundaries and causing harm to states.

Arizona “would be irreparably harmed by the Final Rule due to the time, resources and increased costs necessary to comply with the rule’s dramatic increase in permitting requirements for the Arizona Department of Transportation,” Attorney General Mark Brnovich stated about the lawsuit.

The Clean Water Rule was supposed to go into effect today in all 50 states, but yesterday’s injunction put it on hold for the 13 states that sued, which Brnovich called “an important first step in preventing federal overreach under the guise of environmental protection.”

McCain echoes the sentiment.

He sent a letter to EPA administrator Gina McCarthy earlier this summer, writing that “in recent years, the EPA has, unfortunately, succeeded in building a track record of unilaterally reinventing federal statutes, like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, to advance politically sensational regulations.”

What’s more, these regulations are “not genuine environmental protection,” and will “disproportionately impact Arizona farmers, cattlemen, developers, and other key sectors of Arizona’s economy historically and moving forward into the 21st century.”

“The Clean Water Act is supposed to be protective. It’s supposed to protect against mines leaking acid drainage into waterway or industry polluting rivers,” Bahr says. “But it has to be enforced, and there has to be funding to do so…And right now, the EPA is under attack.”

It’s been less than a month since an EPA cleanup crew accidentally breeched an abandoned gold mine in Colorado and unleashed more than 3 million gallons of toxic waste into the Animas River, and politicians across the country – particularly Republican politicians – have, as Bahr puts it, embarked on a campaign to “vilify the EPA.”

Though McCain has questioned the EPA’s role in the causing the spill, he has avoided some of the more particularly outrageous language espoused by other Republicans.

“It’s unfortunate because the real issue is that we need funding to clean these sorts of things up,” Bahr says. “We definitely don’t need to weaken things like the Clean Water Act.”

Read the judge's ruling and declaration of injunction:

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser