News | April 16, 2019

Broad coalition goes on record against gutting of Clean Water Act

SELC continued its battle against a proposal by the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency to strip Clean Water Act protection from a significant percentage of streams and wetlands in the U.S., submitting comments April 15 on behalf of 80 conservation and community organizations opposing the proposal. In addition, thousands of concerned citizens submitted public comments asking EPA not to move forward with this disastrous proposal.

“The EPA is planning to deal a devastating blow to our nation’s clean water, threatening people’s health, environment, and local economies,” said Blan Holman, managing attorney of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Charleston office and leader of its Clean Water Defense Initiative.

Clean Water Act proposal drastically cuts protections against pollution

The comments explained how the EPA proposal would severely reduce the number of streams and wetlands protected by the Clean Water Act — more than 90 percent of the stream network in parts of North Carolina, for instance, could lose protection. By some estimates, the proposal could exclude up to 70 percent of rivers and streams and more than half of wetlands in the U.S.

“This is the most egregious and dangerous attack on national clean water protections since the bipartisan Clean Water Act became law, nearly half a century ago,” Holman said. “And as a result, Americans will suffer from the loss of these protections while polluters reap the rewards.”

While the Clean Water Act has helped spur enormous progress in cleaning up rivers, streams, and wetlands, much work remains. The comments note that the EPA’s own data show that more than half of tested streams and nearly 80 percent of bays and estuaries in the nation do not yet meet water quality standards.

The EPA proposal would allow polluting industries to contaminate smaller streams without permits or water quality limits, resulting in dirty water flowing into larger streams and impacting the drinking water sources of at least 117 million people.

As farmer and watershed restoration consultant Robert Whitescarver said in a recent Washington Post commentary, “We must understand that all water is connected, whether it is on the surface, in the ground, in the air as water vapor or clouds, or in the vascular system of a tree — it’s all part of the hydrologic cycle. The proposed rule will leave many streams and wetlands open to pollution or destruction.”

The comments described an analysis that found a majority of headwater wetlands in coastal Southeastern states would lose Clean Water Act protection and criticized the EPA for failing to conduct any meaningful analysis of the proposal’s impact on wetlands.

This proposal would not only result in more contaminated waters, it would cost Americans billions of dollars a year — according to the EPA’s own analysis, which acknowledged that the proposal will increase flooding, require more expensive restoration efforts, and increase the cost of treating drinking water. The EPA claims these public costs would be outweighed by the private profits accrued by polluters avoiding the costs of permitting and compliance — a lousy tradeoff but also one that ignores the economic values of clean water.

SELC filed the comments on behalf of 80 nonprofit organizations from across the South and the United States, representing a broad range of interests including hunting, fishing, birding, surfing, conservation, water quality, community empowerment, retired and former employees of the Environmental Protection Agency, and marine science. Full comments are available here along with: Exhibit A | Exhibit B | Exhibit C | Exhibit D | Exhibit E.

EPA now is required by law to consider this public input when making a final decision. If this Clean Water Act assault moves forward despite the significant opposition, SELC and our many partners will be prepared to fight back in court. You can sign up at to stay informed on this critical effort to protect our water and our communities.

This is the most egregious and dangerous attack on national clean water protections since the bipartisan Clean Water Act became law, nearly half a century ago.

Blan Holman, Leader of SELC’s Clean Water Initiative