It came as no surprise, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it is moving to withdraw the so-called Clean Water Rule, potentially making it easier for farmers, builders and others to disturb some streams or wetlands.
The regulation, also known as the “Waters of the United States” rule, had been targeted for rollback since February, when President Trump issued an executive order instructing his administration to begin work on the “elimination of this very destructive and horrible rule.”
It had been adopted in 2015 by the Obama administration, but drew intense opposition from the American Farm Bureau, National Association of Home Builders and other agricultural and industry interests.
"We are taking significant action to return power to the states and provide regulatory certainty to our nation’s farmers and businesses," EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in the agency’s announcement.
The Farm Bureau issued a statement saying farmers and ranchers were cheering the EPA’s action.
But it drew intense criticism from environmentalists, who argued that it made it easier for industry to pollute water Americans relied of for drinking, swimming and fishing.
“The Clean Water Rule provides the clarity we need to protect clean water,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Its repeal would make it easier for irresponsible developers and others to contaminate our waters and send the pollution downstream.”
The EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers jointly drafted the rule in an attempt to clear up legal confusion left by a pair of Supreme Court decisions about when landowners need federal permits to disturb streams and wetlands.
But farm groups, developers and industry instead attacked it as a massive federal overreach. Though the Obama administration insisted the rule would not affect wetlands previously drained by farmers, critics portrayed it as a land grab of epic proportions that sought to exert government control over isolated puddles and dry ditches.
The status of more than half of the nation’s waterways are said to be at issue, including sources of drinking water for 177 million Americans, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The impact of the rollback in the Bay watershed, though, is not clear.
“Fortunately, most of the Bay states have regulations to protect these waters,” noted Kim Coble, vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “But that could change.”
The Clean Water rule never actually took effect, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit had issued a nationwide stay pending a full review of lawsuits challenging its legality.
The EPA said Tuesday that it was proposing to rescind the rule, and as a temporary measure, reinstate the regulatory language defining waters of the United States that had been in effect before the Obama action. The agency also said that it has begun “deliberations and outreach” toward drafting an entirely new interpretation of what streams and wetlands fall under federal jurisdiction.
High court decisions during the George W. Bush administration had provided conflicting guidance, though the more conservative justices had argued for much narrower federal oversight. Trump’s executive order suggested heeding the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s especially conservative opinion in one of the cases, which environmentalists and some scientists worry could result in the loss of federal protection for many more wetlands and streams.
Repealing the Obama Clean Water rule and adopting an entirely new one could take a year or more, and is likely to draw lawsuits from environmental groups that could sideline it as well.
“Unbelievable hypocrisy,” said John Rumpler of Environment America. What, he asked, was the point of an environmental protection agency that was not going to protect the environment?