News | January 31, 2020

SELC op-ed: Bipartisan clean water protections gutted

In the wake of the new definitions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that drastically reduce which waterways receive federal protections, Senior Attorney Blan Holman, who leads SELC’s Clean Water Defense Initiative, breaks down just how much is at stake. In a piece published in The Guardian, Holman outlines what makes this the largest loss of clean water protections in American history and what that means for all of us downstream.
Read an excerpt of the piece below or click here for the full text. 

It may be hard to remember these days, but the nation that led the world on to the stage of modern environmental protection was the United States.

Starting in the early 70s, the U.S. Congress enacted bold bipartisan laws to protect America’s wildlife, air and water. America’s skies cleared. Waterfronts across the nation went from blighted dumping grounds into vital civic hearts.

And, in this journey from smog to light, America’s economy thrived. Our environment improved even as our economy grew. Both Republican and Democratic administrations upheld this commitment to a clean environment, and it endured for decades.

Following the 2016 election, polluting-industry veterans commandeered the country’s environmental agencies with one central aim: make pollution free again.

The assaults have been fast, furious and many. But the latest one stands out above, or below, the others. Administration officials have now targeted the Clean Water Act, perhaps the most fundamental environmental law ever enacted by the U.S. Congress.

So how did the former lobbyists running the agencies sabotage the act? By radically shrinking it. By its terms, the act only protects waters “of the United States”. But according to this administration, waters “of” the United States does not mean waters in the United States. In their view, the Clean Water Act only applies to a subset of waters, and the rest are unprotected.

The scope of the contraction is staggering. In some states out west, 80% of stream miles would lose their protection. Drinking water sources for millions of Americans would be at risk from pollution. The administration’s redefinition would leave millions of acres open for destruction – wetlands that buffer communities from storms, serve as homes for wildlife and nurseries for fish and shellfish, and act as natural water filters.

This is the single largest loss of clean water protections that America has ever seen.

Who loses when that protection is removed? The people living downstream. They will have dirtier drinking water and more flooding. This is especially true in the south, where state environmental agency staff are routinely underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed by pro-polluting politics and industries.

That is exactly why Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The nation’s waters were an open sewer, with some rivers literally catching fire with pollution. Fed-up with state-by-state inaction, the nation demanded a national response – and got it.

Now the administration wants to scrap all that by only defending the very largest rivers and declaring open season on the smaller tributaries upstream.

Fortunately, citizens are entitled to a second opinion. Whether the administration’s moves to gut the Clean Water Act are legal and based on the proper factors will be decided in court. Likely to start soon, the cases could take years to resolve and ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court. How much damage this self-inflicted wound will cause in the meantime remains to be seen.