WASHINGTON, D.C. ― U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, lead Democrat on the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, stood up against poison pill provisions (riders) that would permanently weaken core environmental laws that protect our air, water, health and endangered species.
During a markup of the appropriations bill that funds critical Interior and environment programs — including many New Mexico priorities — Udall also successfully secured a bipartisan agreement to boost wildland firefighting for fiscal year 2017 by more than $600 million.
The Interior and environment funding bill includes a measure Udall has long supported to reform the way the government funds wildfire suppression, allowing the most dangerous fires to be funded as “disasters,” like hurricanes. But the reform won’t take effect immediately. Udall’s amendment would boost funding to provide additional money this year: $661 million, including $490 million for the U.S. Forest Service and $171 million for the U.S. Department of the Interior, bringing the total for wildfire suppression to $2.304 billion, which is the amount requested by the administration. He offered his amendment as firefighters battle several blazes across New Mexico and the Southwest, including the over 12,000-acre Dog Head Fire in the Manzano Mountains south of Albuquerque. Fueled by dry conditions and high winds, the Dog Head Fire has consumed homes and other structures and forced evacuations in several towns.
Udall’s amendment means that the government won’t have to “borrow” from other accounts and programs if the cost of fighting fires in FY ’17 exceeds historical budget estimates, as has been the case over the last several years.
“In New Mexico right now, we can see the devastating toll wildfires take — they are just as dangerous and damaging as hurricanes are on the East and Gulf coasts, and we should treat them that way. And this bill — with my amendment — finally allows us to do that,” Udall said after the markup. “We’re finally putting the emphasis in the right place — on protecting people and homes, giving our firefighters the resources they need, and providing certainty for land managers and everyone who depends on our forests.”
Unfortunately, Udall said, the bill also inadequately funds other important conservation programs — and even worse — includes a number of dangerous poison pill riders that weaken clean water and clean air laws, gut protections for threatened and endangered species, and would leave taxpayers on the hook for more contaminated mines like the Gold King Mine, which spilled toxic wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers in New Mexico and Colorado.
The riders would make significant policy chances that should be carefully considered by authorizing committees, not sneaked into must-pass funding bills, Udall said before offering an amendment to strike all of the riders. Udall’s amendment to pass a “clean” bill failed, however, and as a result, Udall and all of the Democrats on the Appropriations Committee opposed the bill. The bill went on to be approved 16-14 and now moves to the full Senate for consideration.
“This bill funds critically important priorities in New Mexico — including my amendment to keep our communities safe from wildfires — so I’m extremely disappointed that I was unable to support the full bill,” Udall said. “But no matter how important this funding is for New Mexico and our nation, I can’t sit by and accept a bill with riders that would gut bedrock environmental laws that have protected our air, water, and natural environment for decades. I believe we can work out an agreement on this bill before the full Senate. I will continue to work with Democrats and Republicans for a funding bill that is free of dangerous riders and that includes the level of funding our communities need to support our water and other infrastructure needs, uphold our trust responsibilities, maintain our national parks and treasured public lands, and protect our families and communities from dangerous chemicals.”
Riders included in the bill would block the U.S. Environmental Protections Agency’s (EPA) rule on Waters of the United States and block the Stream Protection Rule, which protects water quality from the impacts of surface mining. Other provisions prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from making determinations about the status of threatened or endangered species, and take aim at the Endangered Species Act and other key protections for species and their habitats. The bill also includes forestry provisions that change long-established environmental review processes and prevent the Forest Service from taking steps to prevent logging in old-growth forests in Alaska, generating tremendous concerns from environmental and conservation groups.
The following are Udall’s opening remarks as prepared for delivery at the markup:
Let me begin my remarks this morning on a positive note.
I’d like to thank my chairman, Senator Murkowski, and her excellent staff for working so closely with me on this bill.
As everyone here knows, we regularly have to face significant policy differences on the Interior Subcommittee. In fact, we’re about to talk about some of those differences this morning. But I do appreciate the subcommittee’s ability to work together where we can, and to disagree in a cordial and constructive manner when we can’t. And I think that is a testament to Senator Murkowski’s leadership.
I also want to give the chairman credit for doing a number of good things with this bill despite a very tight allocation. The bill honors our commitment to American Indians and Alaska Natives by providing substantial increases for Tribal health care and education. The bill boosts funding for water infrastructure projects — investments that are badly needed in our communities.
I especially appreciate that the bill includes a more than $150 million increase for drinking water infrastructure. More needs to be done to improve water quality and prevent tragedies, like lead poisoning in Flint, but this bill takes a step in the right direction. This bill also provides new funding to help address the maintenance backlog at our national parks.
The Payments in Lieu of Taxes program is fully funded so that counties have the resources they need to fund schools, public safety and roads. The bill helps the Environmental Protection Agency begin its historic overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act to protect our families and communities from dangerous chemicals.
And it provides important funding for my home state of New Mexico, including crucial increases to fund our most treasured public lands. These are very good things, and I want to vote for a bill that includes them. But, unfortunately, in this case, I can’t. This bill breaks from the precedent set by all the other subcommittees that have marked up this year and includes damaging poison pill riders.
As I mentioned during our subcommittee markup, the list of provisions included in this bill is like “déjà vu all over again.” Riders to roll back Clean Water Act protections, weaken the Endangered Species Act, target the federal Superfund Law and plenty of others.
I’m not sure how many times that we have to go through this process before it sinks in that adding controversial language doesn’t help get spending bills passed into law. We’re going to talk about many of these controversial policy riders at length when I offer an amendment to strike them, so I won’t go into detail now.
I’ll simply say: we have reported other equally controversial bills on a bipartisan basis. If Labor-HHS can do it, why can’t we? If Financial Services can do it, why can’t we? Surely we can do better. I think we should be focusing on passing 12 clean spending bills — not singling out one particular bill and loading it up with policy riders.
We should also be providing more balanced funding and not targeting certain programs or agencies for partisan attacks. I also take issue with the deep cuts this bill makes to programs that address climate change, enforce environmental laws and protect endangered species. It’s unfortunate that the bill scales back investments in the Land and Water Conservation Fund. This is a program with tremendous bipartisan support and it does such good things in our home states.
Finally, we need to do more to do more to address firefighting needs. I’m deeply appreciative that the majority has included legislation to authorize a new disaster cap to pay for wildland firefighting as part of this bill. That’s the long-term solution to this problem. But we can’t access any disaster funding until the cap adjustment becomes law, so we need to find another way to provide more funding — an opportunity that my amendment will present.
That’s why I’m concerned that the bill fails to fully fund firefighting needs for the Forest Service and Interior Department in advance of the fiscal year 2017 fire season.
Last year, this subcommittee recognized that simply funding the 10-year average isn’t enough to cover actual firefighting costs. So we worked on a bipartisan basis to pass an omnibus that gave federal firefighters the funding that they actually need up front to put an end to fire borrowing. I want to make sure that we take the same approach this year.
We simply must find a way to address these issues in a more bipartisan manner. I stand ready to work with Senator Murkowski, but until these issues are resolved, I must oppose this bill.