After seeing news reports over the past several weeks concerning the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, I was shocked and dismayed at a meeting yesterday of the Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) to consider S. 659, the so-called "Bipartisan Sportsmen Act," which included an unrelated amendment that weakens our nation's drinking water protections.
We have all seen disturbing reports of children being poisoned by lead in Flint's drinking water supplies. And what message do you think Republicans have taken from these upsetting news stories? At a time when Congress should be doing more to protect the American people from contaminated or polluted water, the Republican majority on the EPW Committee did the exact opposite. They chose to vote for legislation to undermine the federal government's ability to protect drinking water supplies.
Specifically, the legislation as approved by the Republican majority takes away the right of the Environmental Protection Agency to issue permits when pesticides are sprayed over a body of water.
This provision is much more than just a poke in the eye to people, but is a defiant act toward American families who expect their country to protect them from poisons like pesticides that can harm the nervous system, impact the development of children and even cause cancer.
In 2009, a Federal appeals court made clear that the Clean Water Act, which was passed by large bipartisan majorities in Congress, requires people to get a permit to spray pesticides. They strongly rejected arguments that Congress did not intend the Clean Water Act to apply to pesticides in these cases.
Our landmark environmental laws were designed to protect the health and safety of all Americans. The Clean Water Act protections are designed to safeguard drinking water for American families and businesses. If we are serious about ensuring that the water supplies our children and families rely on for drinking water are free from pollution, we must uphold Clean Water Act safeguards.
Nothing is more important than protecting the lives of the American people, and when Republicans weaken the Clean Water Act, they are putting our families and children at risk. Defending our waterways from pollution used to be a bipartisan issue - but no longer. Just today, Senate Republicans attempted to override President Obama's veto of Republican legislation to block new safeguards for our water sources. Despite their failure, Senate Republicans are already talking about introducing legislation to block these clean water standards again next week on the Senate floor.
Congress should be acting to protect the American people from public health crises like what is happening in Flint, but Republicans apparently haven't gotten the message. A New York Times opinion piece pointed out that Republicans have largely ignored the crisis in Flint: "The truth is that Flint, where 40 percent of residents live below the poverty level, was never on the Republican agenda. Even now, when thousands of children subsist in a city that is toxic, this remains true." (New York Times, "Republicans Ignore a Poisoned City" by Matt Latimer, January 21, 2016)
We cannot allow the Republican majority in Congress to pass legislation containing an unrelated amendment that will eliminate the requirement that a Clean Water Act permit is needed for spraying dangerous pesticides over a body of water. Unless this and other poison pills are dropped from S. 659, I will do everything in my power to prevent this legislation from reaching the Senate floor. And if it does reach the Senate floor, I can assure you that I will do everything I can to stop it from becoming law.
This op-ed appeared in Huffington Post on January 21, 2016.