Trump administration’s proposed repeal of Clean Water Rule threatens Southern states’ water quality

SELC released the following statement in response to the Trump administration’s proposal to repeal the Clean Water Rule as a first step in dismantling water quality protections under the Clean Water Act.

“EPA’s proposal to rescind the Clean Water Rule calls into question basic protections for many streams and wetlands and jeopardizes clean water for all Americans, and nowhere is that threat greater to the health and wellbeing of our communities than in the South,” said Derb Carter, director of SELC’s North Carolina offices. “Compared to other regions, Southern states have more miles of streams, more acres of wetlands, and weak and underfunded state water quality programs, making the region especially vulnerable to the loss of federal clean water protections.”

“Repealing this rule and ulitmately replacing it with a weaker rule is a gift to polluters that will harm our drinking water and the creeks, rivers, lakes, and wetlands we all use and enjoy,” said Carter. “We have worked hard to clean up and protect our waters from unchecked pollution for over 30 years, and remain committed to challenging any attempts to undermine these critical safeguards.”

The Environmental Protection Agency issued the Clean Water Rule in May 2015 in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the extent and types of waters protected by the Clean Water Act. The rule clarifies which streams, wetlands, and other waters are protected from pollution.  

These basic safeguards protect the waters that nearly 20 million people in SELC’s six states—Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee—depend on for drinking water. These states are also home to more than 600,000 miles of streams and approximately 22 million acres of wetlands, which help to filter polluted runoff, reduce the risk of flooding, and provide important wildlife habitat.

In a February 28 Executive Order, the Trump administration took a first step towards dismantling important Clean Water Act protections. The administration declared its intent to repeal the Clean Water Rule and replace it with a new rule that would severely limit the protection provided by the Clean Water Act by embracing an interpretation of the Act that has been rejected by multiple appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Without Clean Water Act protections in place, factories, developers, and other polluters may be able to dump pollutants including sewage, toxic materials, and fill materials directly into small streams and wetlands and in some cases destroy the streams and wetlands entirely.

When proposed, the Clean Water Rule received more than a million comments from state leaders, small businesses, local elected officials, sportsmen groups, health organizations and conservation groups, with over 87 percent of the commenters in support of the rule.

After EPA adopted the Clean Water Rule, some states led by then Oklahoma Attorney General (and now EPA administrator) Scott Pruitt, developers, and polluting industries challenged the regulation. Other states and conservation organizations, including SELC, on behalf of the Coastal Conservation League and One Hundred Miles, filed motions to intervene in the cases and defend the rule.

In an initial setback for the Trump administration, on April 3, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s request for a delay in ruling on which court has jurisdiction over challenges to the Clean Water Rule. SELC filed a brief opposing the delay.

Southern waters facing the greatest risk if the Clean Water Rule is repealed include:

  • Alabama: Isolated wetlands and over half (54 percent) of the stream miles that supply water for public drinking water systems for 2.6 million people.
  • Georgia: Small creeks in the northern mountains, cypress domes in the Coastal Plain, and over half the stream miles (56 percent) in the Piedmont that supply water to public drinking water systems for 4.9 million people.
  • North Carolina: Small trout streams in the Appalachians, pocosin wetlands that help maintain fishery nursery areas along the coast, and over half (56 percent) of the stream miles in the Piedmont and mountains that supply water for public drinking water systems for 4.7 million people.
  • South Carolina: Small creeks in the mountains that flow into the Reedy and Congaree Rivers, namesake Carolina Bays along the coast, and approximately half (51 percent) of the stream miles that supply water for public drinking water systems for 1.9 million people.
  • Tennessee: Small trout streams in the mountains, upland swamps on the Cumberland Plateau and highland bogs, and over half (57 percent) of the stream miles that supply water for public drinking water systems for 3.5 million people.
  • Virginia: Small trout streams and bogs in the mountains, headwater streams and associated wetlands that filter much of the pollution that would otherwise enter Chesapeake Bay, and over half (57 percent) of the stream miles that supply water for public drinking water systems for 2.3 million people.

   Percentages given above are from EPA’s own analysis in 2009.

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