The Trump administration is scaling back existing federal protections on waterways, exposing streams and wetlands to pollution from agriculture and other sources, according to the LA Times.
Internal talking points were first obtained by E&E News yesterday, and today, the administration officially unveiled the plan.
Acting Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler said the Obama-era extension of the protections had “further expanded Washington’s reach into privately owned lands.”
“They claimed it was in the interest of water quality, but it was really about power. Power in the hands of the federal government over landowners,” he said on Tuesday.
The proposal would dramatically limit the number of waterways for which protections pollution apply, opening the door to both agricultural runoff and industrial waste, which can move from small streams and seasonal wetlands into larger bodies of water. The rules currently protect waterways that contribute, at least in part, to drinking water sources for 117 million Americans.
“More landowners had to go through a costly and time-consuming process that runs counter to our Republican form of government,” said Wheeler. “This ends years of uncertainty over where federal jurisdiction begins and ends.”
Early last year, the White House said it planned to dismantle the rule, which extended protections to seasonal streams and wetlands. In arid states such as California, these waterways form the backbone of drinking water sources.
Despite stricter state regulations in some places like California, former EPA officials have said state agencies won’t have the resources to conduct the enforcement that federal officials would have handled under the Obama-era rules.
“The ramifications could be huge,” according to Jessica Kao, who served as EPA’s lead Clean Water Act enforcement attorney in the Southwest, until earlier this year. “You will definitely see more development projects outside the purview of the Clean Water Act.”
She said many projects that could potentially pollute waters will now no longer require federal environmental reviews, leading to less transparency around threats to water quality.
The proposal will now face a 60-day public comment period, during which environmental groups and states are likely to put forward legal challenges.
Former EPA water expert Mark Ryan says the EPA appears to be targeting not only Obama’s 2015 expansion of the rule, but also preexisting protections.
“They’re trying to sidestep the science,” he said. “The science is pretty clear that whatever happens at the top of the watershed affects the bottom of the watershed.”