Wa­ter pro­tec­tion rules rolled back

Dis­putes have long per­sisted over what should be reg­u­lated

The Morning Call - - NATION & WORLD - By John Flesher

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion on Thurs­day re­voked an Oba­maera reg­u­la­tion that shielded many U.S. wet­lands and streams from pol­lu­tion but was op­posed by de­vel­op­ers and farm­ers who said it hurt eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and in­fringed on prop­erty rights.

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups crit­i­cized the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tion, the lat­est in a series of moves to roll back en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions put into place un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

The 2015 Wa­ters of the United States rule de­fined the wa­ter­ways sub­ject to fed­eral reg­u­la­tion. Scrap­ping it “puts an end to an egre­gious power grab, elim­i­nates an on­go­ing patch­work of clean wa­ter reg­u­la­tions and re­stores a long-stand­ing and fa­mil­iar reg­u­la­tory frame­work,” En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency chief An­drew Wheeler said at a news con­fer­ence in Washington, D.C.

Wheeler and R.D. James, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of the Army for civil works, signed a doc­u­ment over­turn­ing the rule and tem­po­rar­ily restor­ing an ear­lier reg­u­la­tory system that emerged af­ter a 2006 rul­ing from a sharply di­vided Supreme Court.

The agen­cies plan to adopt a new rule by the end of the year that is ex­pected to de­fine pro­tected wa­ter­ways more nar­rowly than the Obama pol­icy.

The Clean Wa­ter Act re­quires landown­ers to ob­tain fed­eral per­mits be­fore de­vel­op­ing or pol­lut­ing nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter­ways such as rivers and lakes.

But dis­putes have long per­sisted over what other wa­ters are sub­ject to reg­u­la­tion — par­tic­u­larly wet­lands that don’t have a di­rect con­nec­tion to those larger wa­ters, plus small head­wa­ter streams and chan­nels that flow only dur­ing and af­ter rain­fall.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists con­tend many of those smaller, seem­ingly iso­lated wa­ters are trib­u­taries of the larger wa­ter­ways and can have a sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect on their qual­ity. Deny­ing them fed­eral pro­tec­tion would leave mil­lions of Amer­i­cans with less safe drink­ing wa­ter and al­low dam­age of wet­lands that pre­vent flood­ing, fil­ter pol­lu­tants and pro­vide habi­tat for a mul­ti­tude of fish, wa­ter­fowl and other wildlife, they said.

“By re­peal­ing the Clean Wa­ter Rule, this ad­min­is­tra­tion is open­ing our iconic wa­ter­ways to a flood of pol­lu­tion,” said Bart Johnsen-Har­ris of En­vi­ron­ment Amer­ica. “The EPA is ab­di­cat­ing its mis­sion to pro­tect our en­vi­ron­ment and our health.”

Wheeler said reg­u­la­tors had gone far be­yond the in­tent of Congress un­der the 1972 clean wa­ter law.

“The 2015 rule meant that more busi­nesses and landown­ers across the U.S. would need to ob­tain a fed­eral per­mit to ex­er­cise con­trol over their own prop­erty, a process that can cost tens of thou­sands of dol­lars and take months or even years to com­plete,” he said. “It also put more lo­cal land-use de­ci­sions in the hands of un­elected bu­reau­crats. Many Amer­i­cans balked at this idea, and right­fully so.”

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump had or­dered the EPA and Army Corps to de­velop a re­place­ment pol­icy that has a more re­stric­tive def­i­ni­tion of pro­tected wet­lands and streams.

The Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil said the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tion would be chal­lenged in court.

“The Clean Wa­ter Rule rep­re­sented solid science and smart public pol­icy,” the group said in a state­ment.

Zippy Du­vall, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Farm Bureau Fed­er­a­tion, said the 2015 rule had gen­er­ated a greater sense of ur­gency among its mem­ber­ship than any other is­sue.

“When you take the pri­vate prop­erty rights from a man that’s worked all his life to grow the food and fiber for all of us to sit down and en­joy three times a day, it’s some­thing he just can’t stand,” Du­vall said.

The ques­tion of which wa­ters are cov­ered un­der the Clean Wa­ter Act has in­spired decades of law­suits and nu­mer­ous bills in Congress.

The Supreme Court in 2006 pro­duced three dif­fer­ing opin­ions, lead­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to craft its rule.

It pro­vided fed­eral over­sight to upstream trib­u­taries and head­wa­ters, in­clud­ing wet­lands, ponds, lakes and streams that can af­fect the qual­ity of nav­i­ga­ble wa­ters.

The reg­u­la­tion drew quick le­gal chal­lenges from 31 states and court rul­ings block­ing its im­ple­men­ta­tion in some. It was ef­fec­tive in 22 states, Washington, D.C., and U.S. ter­ri­to­ries be­fore Thurs­day’s ac­tion.

Betsy Souther­land, di­rec­tor of science and tech­nol­ogy in EPA’s Of­fice of Wa­ter dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, said re­vok­ing its pol­icy would cre­ate fur­ther reg­u­la­tory con­fu­sion.

“This re­peal is a vic­tory for land de­vel­op­ers, oil and gas drillers and min­ers who will ex­ploit that am­bi­gu­ity to dredge and fill small streams and wet­lands that were pro­tected from de­struc­tion by the 2015 rule be­cause of their crit­i­cal im­pact on na­tional wa­ter qual­ity,” Souther­land said.

Sen. John Bar­rasso, a Wy­oming Repub­li­can and chair­man of the Se­nate Com­mit­tee on En­vi­ron­ment and Public Works, ap­plauded the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion move, say­ing the Obama rule “would have put back­yard ponds, pud­dles and prairie pot­holes un­der Washington’s con­trol.”

ZACH GIB­SON/GETTY

EPA chief An­drew Wheeler said end­ing the Obama wa­ter rule “re­stores a long­stand­ing and fa­mil­iar reg­u­la­tory frame­work.”

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