The Environmental Protect Agency (EPA) and the Department of Army on Tuesday (Dec 11) unveiled a new proposal that seeks to redefine WOTUS (Waters of the United States).
What this basically means is that more than half of all US waterbodies, including vast tracts of wetlands and thousands of miles of waterways, would cease to get federal protection that the Obama-era Clean Water Rule guaranteed.
The proposal by the so-called “agencies,” which is now open to comment for sixty days, would dramatically limit the types of waterbodies that come under the Clean Water Act of 1972.
In 2015, the Obama administration had expanded the Act to include an additional 20 million acres of wetlands and 2 million acres of streams, attracting years of lawsuits from major polluters, including the agricultural, real estate, and industrial sectors.
The proposed WOTUS revision is based on a 2005 model suggested by the late Supreme Court Justice Antony Scalia who was of the opinion that the Clean Water Act was applicable only to “relatively permanent waters and wetlands with a continuous surface connection to relatively permanent waters.”
The Scalia model argued that water resources that didn’t fall under the stipulated categorization should be left to the concerned states to regulate and manage.
Defending the Trump administration’s proposed change, EPA’s acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, said that the proposal “would ensure that our water protections—among the best in the world—will remain strong while giving states and tribes the certainty to manage their waterways in ways that best protect their natural resources and economies.”
While it more than suits the polluters who stand to profit from it, the proposal has shocked vast sections of the society, which has not minced words in condemning it.
According to the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibilities, or PEER, the Trump administration’s “huge eco-rollback” plan would “greatly exacerbate already growing water shortages,” as more than sixty percent of the country’s wetlands and waterways would no longer come under the ambit of the Clean Water Act, meaning no federal protection for them.
The proposed changes would adversely impact more than half of the country’s drinking water sources, putting some 117 million Americans – about one-third of the population – at risk from water-borne diseases.
Also, “the millions of acres of wetlands that could be filled or drained would greatly weaken U.S. flood control, strip urban hurricane buffers, as well as decimate fish and wildlife habitat,” says PEER.
Under the proposed ruling, unprotected waterbodies and wetlands would become highly vulnerable to unchecked dumping and draining of pollutants from industrial and construction projects, as many states do not have laws in place to regulate these water sources.
“The Trump administration will stop at nothing to reward polluting industries and endanger our most treasured resources,” said Jon Devine, director of the Federal Water program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
“Given the problems facing our lakes, streams, and wetlands—from the beaches of Florida to the drinking water of Toledo—now is the time to strengthen protections for our waterways, not weaken them,” he said.
“This proposal is reckless, and we will fight to ensure it never goes into effect,” Devine concluded.
PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett couldn’t have said it better when she pointed out that the Trump administration’s proposal was “a developer’s dream but an environmental nightmare.”
“The Trump Administration’s attacks on safe clean drinking water are a threat to the environment and public health,” said Howard Learner, the executive director of Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC).
“Too many Midwest cities and towns are already experiencing unsafe drinking water, and this rollback of critical protections of our community waterways will only exacerbate the problem,” he added.
Learner went to the extent of calling the proposal “foolish,” saying it “rejects science and it imperils progress for safe clean drinking water in the Midwest.”
He added: “The interconnectedness of our waterways must have federal oversight to ensure the safety and security of our fresh water.
“We need more protections for the clean water we all rely upon for drinking, fishing, and recreation, not less.
“We can’t afford to go backwards when it comes to reducing pollution of rivers, lakes, and streams.”
The new proposal is a blatant attempt by the Trump administration to undermine the 2015 Obama-era ruling, which sought to “ensure protection for the nation’s public health and aquatic resources, and increase CWA program predictability and consistency by clarifying the scope of “waters of the United States” protected under the Act.”
As he does with most things Obama, Trump tried to undermine the 2015 law by projecting it as a regulatory overkill, saying it was “one of the worst examples of federal regulation” and it was his government’s priority to rescind it.
Dave Ross, the assistant administrator for the Office of Water at EPA, said that the proposal would bring back the “careful balance” of the original 1972 CWA which the Obama administration changed in 2015 to include additional water resources.
The new proposal found another supporter in Randy Noel, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), who said it would facilitate development.
“As a home builder, I’m pretty excited about it because we hadn’t had any lots to build on,” he said.
He said that the Obama-era CWA was rather ambiguous, as it did not clarify which water sources were exempt from the federal ruling. “Hopefully this re-definition will fix that,” he said.
“The Trump administration wants to take us backwards, creating a new set of rules for corporate polluters while leaving the rest of us more vulnerable to toxic water pollution,” said Madeleine Foote, legislative representative for the League of Conservation Voters, in a statement.
“We need to do more to protect our water, not less,” she said, adding that “the Clean Water Act is one of our most important environmental laws, and this attempt to limit its protections will threaten the drinking water for tens of millions of people.”