Trump rollback of key EPA water protection rule denounced as a 'callous' and 'immoral' giveaway to big polluters

Trump rollback of key EPA water protection rule denounced as a 'callous' and 'immoral' giveaway to big polluters
President Donald J. Trump, joined by Acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Norman Sharpless and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, announces a plan to remove all flavored e-cigarette products from the market as quickly as possible Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Environmental and public health advocates blasted the Trump administration Thursday for finalizing its rollback of an Obama-era regulation designed to curb the pollution of waterways nationwide.

"Fifty years after the Cuyahoga River fire that inspired the Clean Water Act, President Trump's administration wants to turn back the clock to the days of poisoned flammable water," declared Abigail Dillen, president of the non-profit legal group Earthjustice. "This is shameful and dangerous."

The Washington Post reported late Wednesday that the Trump administration "plans to scrap the Obama-era definition of what qualifies as 'waters of the United States' under the Clean Water Act, returning the country to standards put in place in 1986."

Robert Irvin, president of American Rivers, told the Post that "the administration wants to go back to an era where we are destroying wetlands heedlessly."

In 2015, under the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued the Clean Water Rule—also known as Waters of the United States (WOTUS) Rule—which gave the federal government regulatory authority over many streams and wetlands across the country. Because of various ongoing legal battles involving the 2015 rule, including some cases that relate to the Trump administration's moves to repeal or weaken it, the Obama-era definition of federal waters remains in effect in only 22 states and is temporarily blocked in the other 28 states.

"We want to make sure that we have a definition that once and for all will be the law of the land in all 50 states," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told the Post ahead of the administration's official announcement. "What we have today is a patchwork across the country... We need to have a uniform regulatory approach."

EPA Region 6 Administrator Ken McQueen made the announcement Thursday at a Dallas Builders Association event. In a statement, Wheeler explained that "today's Step 1 action fulfills a key promise of President Trump and sets the stage for Step 2—a new WOTUS definition that will provide greater regulatory certainty for farmers, landowners, home builders, and developers nationwide."

Throughout Thursday, advocates for strong water regulations issued scathing critiques of the Trump administration's repeated attacks and ultimate repeal of the 2015 rule.

"Under President Trump, the EPA is no longer in the business of safeguarding our resources and protecting us from pollution, but is openly working to advance the agenda of those who profit from fouling our water and threatening our health," said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Research conducted by Cox and a colleague in 2017 showed that removing the Obama-era protections could endanger the drinking water of about 117 million people nationwide.

Noting that estimated impact on drinking water, Food & Water Watch Action executive director Wenonah Hauter declared that "the only incentive to gut water protections like this is to create a safe haven for agrochemical industrial interests against the wellbeing of public and environmental health."

"Without protections in place, the expansive and insatiable agricultural businesses that run factory farms across our country will not bat an eye when it comes to releasing waste and pollutants into our vital drinking water resources," Hauter warned. "Unfettered profits will be the law of the land now, rather than the protection of the human right to clean and safe water."

"Clean water is essential to all life, but instead of protecting it, the Trump administration is giving Big Polluters another handout," said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels program director for Friends of the Earth. "Vulnerable communities who already suffer from a lack of access to clean water will be put at even greater risk by this immoral decision."

"The EPA's callous decision," Keever added, "endangers communities and threatens our environment."

Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, accused the administration of "green-lighting the destruction of millions of acres of wetlands" and expressed concerns about the resulting impacts on plants and animals.

"Special-interest polluters are reaping a windfall at the expense of our nation's clean water," Hartl said. "As our wetlands disappear and our streams and rivers are polluted, our nation's wildlife will suffer devastating losses."

In a statement Thursday, the Center for Biological Diversity outlined the Trump administration's anticipated next steps—and their consequences:

Expected to follow closely on the heels of today's "repeal" rulemaking is a second EPA rulemaking—dubbed the "replacement" rule—that is expected to gut remaining protections for more than 50 percent of the nation's wetlands.

An analysis by the center estimates that the proposal would cut Clean Water Act protections for more than 3,000 watersheds in the western United States and accelerate the extinction of more than 75 endangered species, from steelhead trout to California tiger salamanders.

These rulemakings were prompted by President Donald Trump's Executive Order 13778, which urged the EPA to protect only those waters that have "a relatively permanent surface connection" to a traditionally navigable body of water such as a major river. The executive order followed the legal view of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, which was not adopted by the Supreme Court.

"This administration has shown nothing but disdain for America's natural heritage and the wildlife we cherish," added Hartl. "We'll fight this illegal rollback and every aspect of Trump's incredibly harmful anti-environmental agenda."

Several other advocates also promised Thursday to fight against the Trump EPA's rollback through legal action.

"This repeal is outrageous," said Clean Water Action president and CEO Bob Wendelgass, "but it's just one part of a broad assault on fundamental protections for our water—and we're not going to let the Trump administration win."

Jon Devine, director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said the 2015 rule "represented solid science and smart public policy."

"The Trump administration's wild-eyed attempts to reward polluters, however, knows no bounds, so it is repealing these important protections without regard for the law or sound science," Devine added. "This unsubstantiated action is illegal and will certainly be challenged in court."

Dillen vowed that Earthjustice, which is already involved in litigation related to the 2015 rule, "will use the full strength of our nation's bedrock environmental laws to protect communities and the environment."

"This administration's industry-fueled giveaways to dirty special interests," she said, "cannot be allowed to stand."

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