The Clean Water Act Section 401 is one of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws. Passed in 1972, Section 401 authorizes states and tribes to review the impacts of many federally licensed projects on waterways and wetlands within their jurisdiction and to limit or stop unacceptable projects. These can include hydroelectric dams, pipelines, and fossil fuel export terminals and have the potential to significantly degrade water quality by damming major rivers, destroying acres of wetlands, and causing significant erosion and sediment pollution. With sediment loads being targeted for major reductions in the Chesapeake Bay TMDL, it is crucial now more than ever to ensure that Bay jurisdictions are able to hold these massive projects accountable in the Bay’s cleanup.
Section 401 review can be states’ and tribes’ only meaningful opportunity to protect their own resources. States and tribes are able to better protect all types of water use, including drinking water; commercial, tribal, and recreational fishing; swimming; critical wildlife habitat; and outdoor recreation.
EPA’s changes to Section 401 of the Clean Water Act will make it even harder for local communities to have a voice in how these projects affect their waterways or degrade their water quality. It will limit the reasons states and tribes can reject, or place conditions on, projects that could pose harm to water quality. It will also give state and tribal authorities’ arbitrary time constraints that will limit their ability to adequately review applications. Limiting this authority will serve only to create less accountability and to increase the threat of sediment pollution. In the Chesapeake, this could have significant impacts on the ability for Maryland to implement conditions on the Conowingo Dam certification and for all states when it comes to pipelines.
These changes will leave states and tribes without sufficient time, information, and resources to ensure that a project will not harm water quality. Our representatives and each state’s inhabitants must speak out on this issue before the EPA takes away every state’s environmental rights. Comments from the public are critical in this decision and can be submitted here until October 21, 2019.
Kelsey Hillner is the policy and campaigns manager with the Virginia Conservation Network.