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EPA extends comment period on contentious waterways rule

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is extending the comment period on a controversial water regulation in order to allow the public to weigh in on a soon-to-be-released scientific report, the agency said today.

The comment period on the proposed rule to clarify the scope of the Clean Water Act will now close Nov. 14, the agency said in a statement, three weeks later than the previous deadline of Oct. 20. This is the second extension the agency has granted on the proposed rule.

Opponents of the proposed regulation, which would increase the number of streams and creeks that currently receive automatic protection under the 1972 law, have argued that the agency is rushing the process by proposing it before a peer review of the key scientific report was completed. Last week, EPA's Science Advisory Board sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy saying that the regulatory proposal is supported by science and in fact should be more expansive (Greenwire, Sept. 30). But the board is still completing its review of the scientific report that the agency said the proposed rule is based on. It is expected to be completed by the middle of this month.

The main industry coalition opposing the rule has argued that too many new items have been added to the process during the comment period and has called for the proposal to be withdrawn. Meanwhile, a number of stakeholders have asked the agency to extend the time frame to allow them to digest and comment on the scientific report.

"EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have always maintained that having the latest peer-reviewed science is an essential part of determining jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act," EPA said in a statement today. "The Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) will soon complete its peer review of the report on the connectivity of streams and wetlands. To provide the public with the opportunity to comment on the SAB review and in response to requests for additional time to comment on the proposal Waters of the U.S. rule, the agencies are extending the public comment period to Friday, November 14, 2014."

The new deadline comes after the midterm elections, when both sides will have a better handle on whether Congress may intervene on the proposal. The House has already voted to block it. Democratic Senate leaders have so far staved off a vote on the issue, although more than half of the chamber is on record in opposition.