Amid health crisis, Trump administration guts clean water protections

EPA rule strips longstanding safeguards for streams, wetlands

A wetland in the North Carolina Sandhills. (© Derb Carter)

As communities across the country respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers today published a rule in the Federal Register that guts decades-old safeguards protecting America’s waters from contamination.

“As communities throughout the country battle a growing public health crisis, this administration is intent on stripping away long-established protections against pollution in the rivers and lakes Americans rely on for drinking water,” said Blan Holman, senior attorney and leader of SELC’s Clean Water Defense Initiative. “At a time when so many Americans are undertaking an unprecedented effort to protect public health, the federal government is recklessly removing the country’s most basic clean water protections.”

As announced by the EPA and the Army Corps in January, the new rule redefines which “waters of the United States” are protected under the Clean Water Act and eliminates clean water protections that have prevented unchecked pollution from entering our waterways and drinking water sources for almost 50 years.

At a time when so many Americans are undertaking an unprecedented effort to protect public health, the federal government is recklessly removing the country’s most basic clean water protections.”

—Blan Holman, Leader of SELC's Clean Water Defense Initiative

The rule opens the way for pollution of tributaries to drinking water sources for millions of Americans and was finalized in flat disregard of science showing that contamination upstream impacts downstream waters. The agency’s own Science Advisory Board—consisting mostly of scientists appointed by the Trump administration—warned that this rule was inconsistent with established science.

The overwhelming majority of over 600,000 comments received by EPA opposed the rule.

Americans across the country voiced concerns, including state floodplain and wetland managers, state wildlife and environmental agencies, family commercial fishing businesses, fly-fishing related businesses, river guides and paddling outfitters, outdoor apparel company Patagonia, outdoor recreational enthusiasts, 59 craft breweries from across the country, twelve scientific societies that represent more than 200,000 scientists, numerous associations representing public and children’s health advocates, cities and counties, small and family farmers, environmental law professors, faith organizations, and multiple conservation organizations.

In April, SELC filed comments exposing the danger of the EPA’s proposal on behalf of 80 nonprofit organizations. Full comments are available here.

The new rule is the administration’s final move in repealing and replacing the Clean Water Rule, which established clear guidelines for what waters are protected under the Clean Water Act.  The administration first sought to suspend that rule, but SELC challenged the suspension and won in 2018. In October 2019, after the administration finalized a regulation formally repealing the Clean Water Rule, SELC filed suit on behalf of multiple conservation groups. That lawsuit could resume if the newest rule is struck down.

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