Policy

Trump administration expected to roll back clean water rule

New rule would reduce the number of waterways the federal government can protect from pollution

Wetlands and waterways such as those in the Florida Everglades, shown here, and the wildlife they sustain could be affected by the EPA's rollback of clean water protections. (Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Trump administration is expected to complete on Thursday a new rule that rolls back parts of the 2015 clean water rule that expanded federal authority over the nation’s streams, rivers and wetlands.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler scheduled a “major water policy announcement” at the headquarters of the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade group that has lobbied hard for the repeal of the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States rule, or WOTUS.

[EPA draft groundwater rules disappoint clean water advocates]

Environmental advocates say the previously proposed changes to the rule will allow industry to pollute with impunity. They argue that because the nation’s water systems are interconnected, some across state lines, federal regulation is required to protect sources of drinking water and the wildlife that depend on them.

Advocates of the change, which rolls back federal authority, called the previous rule a power grab that impeded economic development.

The EPA proposed replacing the rule in December following an executive order from President Donald Trump.

The new rule would reduce the number of waterways the federal government can protect from pollution, as it seeks to appease industry groups and conservative lawmakers who criticized the regulations as a federal land grab that created uncertainty for industry and landowners.

Opponents have also argued the 2015 rule encroached on private property rights and subjected small farmers to added government scrutiny and the risk of legal entanglements.

“This is about power… Power in the hands of the federal government over landowners,” Wheeler said in December.

[EPA offers rollback of methane rules to mixed industry reaction]

The proposed rule would remove several categories of waterways and wetlands from federal jurisdiction and limit the government’s oversight to large bodies of water.

The EPA and Army Corps of Engineers proposed placing the waters the government can regulate into six categories. Those include “traditional navigable waters,” used for transportation and commerce; tributaries to navigable waters; certain lakes and ponds; and wetlands adjacent to the traditional navigable waters.

Waters that the proposed rule would keep from federal regulations included most ditches, groundwater, stormwater control facilities and waste treatment systems.

“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,” Environmental Protection Network member Betsy Southerland said in an emailed statement anticipating the final rule.

Southerland is the former director of the Office of Science and Technology in EPA’s Office of Water. She resigned in 2017 after three decades at the agency and has been an outspoken critic of the Trump administration’s policies.

She said repealing the 2015 rule would subject every state and U.S. territory to the “ambiguous” regulations and guidance dating from the 1980s regarding which waters and wetlands are subject to federal Clean Water Act protections.

The Obama administration’s rule had sought to address that ambiguity and the decades of legal wrangling by clarifying what constituted “waters of the United States.”

Green groups have threatened to sue the administration over its repeal of the Obama rule, which was the subject of multiple lawsuits from its onset.

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