Thumbing its nose at good science and common sense, a U.S. House committee has voted to virtually eliminate federal wetlands protection, unless the government pays the landowner. an insult to the environment and the national commonweal, a "polluter's bill of rights," as one congressman put it.
Under the pretense of flexibly pruning cumbersome federal regulation, the Republican-engineered measure would repeal significant provisions of the 23-year-old Clean Water Act that has done much to preserve vital wetlands, force major improvements in wastewater treatment and attack nonpoint runoff pollution of the nation's waters.
The ideological hubris of the Republican leadership is exemplified by this action in the House Committee on Transportation and Public Works.
In less than a month, a National Academy of Sciences panel is to deliver the results of its two-year study of wetlands requested by Congress, a study whose conclusions are expected to soundly refute the legislators' deregulation position.
"The most important legislative body in the world is sticking its head in the sand," chided Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican from Maryland's Eastern Shore who courageously voted against the bill. Committee leaders unabashedly declared that wetlands definition is political, not scientific: Their proposal would cut off 80 percent of national wetlands from protection, and pay compensation for loss of property values in the rest.
Maryland more than any state cherishes the value of wetlands as water purifier, flood protector and wildlife habitat. It has been a leader in protection of wetlands, both coastal and nontidal, and state law early declared "no net loss" of wetlands as its objective. Despite some landowner complaints, wetlands protection has been a decided advantage for the welfare of Maryland and the bay.
There may be merit in revising some wetlands definitions, as the Clinton administration has proposed. But the science is admittedly complex, not amenable to the simplistic "A-B-C" classifications created by the House committee. Separating "good" wetlands from "bad" wetlands is typically a distinction made by a developer or farmer in self-interest. All of which is sound reason to wait for the NAS report before acting on this measure.
While the bill kicks in money for the Chesapeake Bay program and for sewage treatment plants, it also provides deadline extensions for water cleanup if money is made unavailable by a cost-cutting Congress. That's another bad trade-off for the environment. We urge the full House, and Senate, to tell the committee that its plan is all wet.