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Pushback escalates to Trump proposal to weaken Clean Water Act

The Trump administration's rewrite of the 'Waters of the United States' rule could jeopardize up to 90 percent of the nation's wetlands, such as these in Midway, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center. Credit: Brian Brown, 'Vanishing Coastal Georgia'

By David Pendered

Amid reports that the Trump administration intends to announce next week a reduction in the amount of wetlands and waterways covered by the federal Clean Water Act, the Southern Environmental Law Center is condemning the proposed step as the most destructive of Trump’s rollback of environmental rules.

The Trump administration’s rewrite of the ‘Waters of the United States’ rule could jeopardize up to 90 percent of the nation’s wetlands, such as these in Midway, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center. Credit: Brian Brown, ‘Vanishing Coastal Georgia’

“If reports are accurate, this isn’t a weakening of an Obama Administration rule – this is a sledgehammer to the Clean Water Act, which has protected the country’s waters and our families for nearly 50 years,” Geoff Gisler, senior attorney and leader of SELC’s Clean Water Program, said in a statement released Friday. “Out of all the anti-environmental attacks we have seen from this administration, this may be the most far-reaching and destructive.”

The proposed rule change has been in the works since June 27, 2017. That’s when The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army signed a rule to revise the definition of the “waters of the United States.” According to the executive summary of the proposal:

  • “The agencies propose to replace the stayed 2015 definition of ‘waters of the United States’, and re-codify the exact same regulatory text that existed prior to the 2015 rule, which reflects the current legal regime under which the agencies are operating pursuant to the Sixth Circuit’s October 9, 2015 order.”

The EPA reported that 789,782 public comments were received before the comment period closed Sept. 27. The comments reflect the division in the country over environmental protection efforts. For example:

Parker Judd, of American Fort, Utah wrote:

  • “This should not even be an issue. Yet it is. Why? Why in the world are we having to fight for clean water? Shouldn’t we have reached a place by now that everyone has access to it? Not just in the United States but the world as a whole?? This shouldn’t be a problem yet it is because of greedy politicians.”

Ann Coan, environmental affairs director of the Farm Bureau of North Carolina wrote:

  • “Clean water is important to all farm families in North Carolina. We thank the Agencies for this opportunity to comment on their ongoing efforts to repeal the 2015 rule, and we also look forward to providing our views on a definition of ‘waters of the United States’ that is both protective of water quality and respectful of the rights of farmers and forestland owners in North Caroilna and across the nation. We urge the Agencies to finalize the proposed rule.”

The SELC was responding to a report Thursday by eenews.net. The publication reported that it had obtained a copy of talking points ahead of a presentation expected Dec. 11 by the Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the report, the EPA intends to announce a new definition of “waters of the United States” that will:

  • “[E]rase federal protections from streams that flow only following rainfall, as well as wetlands not physically connected to larger waterways….”

The story continues:

  • “The exact number of wetlands and waterways losing federal protections won’t be known until the full, detailed proposal is released. But the talking points offer some clues.
  • “’Ephemeral streams and related features’ that are wet only after rain events would be completely excluded. The proposal also ‘covers only adjacent wetlands that are physically and meaningfully connected to other jurisdictional waters.’
  • “It’s not clear how the administration would define ‘physically and meaningfully connected.’ But the agencies have set out to write a regulation based on a 2006 opinion written by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who said the Clean Water Act should extend only to waters and wetlands with a ‘continuous surface connection’ to nearby rivers and streams where it is “difficult to determine where the ‘water’ ends and the ‘wetland’ begins.’”

The Trump administration has said that returning to a definition of WOTUS that existed before the tightening of the rule by the Obama administration would, “provide continuity for regulated entities [farmers and industry], the states, tribes and the public.” The new rule is to comply with, “Supreme Court decisions, agency guidance, and longstanding practice,” according to a notice published by the EPA.

An economic analysis included in the report by the EPA and Army estimated annual avoided costs of up to $476.2 million with a return to the pre-2015 rules.


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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