EPA finalizes rollback of pollution rules for ecosystems, drinking water

Trumpeter swans gather at the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. The EPA on Tuesday eliminated pollution rules intended to safeguard at-risk ecosystems and drinking water. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Pulling the plug on the eve of Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency eliminated critical pollution rules from the Obama era that had safeguarded at-risk ecosystems and drinking water across the country.

The newNavigable Waters Protection Rule has been in the works since President Donald Trump’s inauguration but appeared in the Federal Register for the first time Tuesday.

Whereas the Clean Water Act of 1972 had previously included protections for wetlands, artificial lakes and ponds and ephemeral streams — critical waterways that carry stormwater runoff — the Environmental Protection Agency now calls the smaller bodies “nonjurisdictional” waters, following an 2017 executive order by Trump.

Andrew Wheeler, the head of the EPA, had said in January that the new rule preserves state sovereignty and streamlines regulations by providing clear exclusions.

This is at the cost of safe drinking water for millions of Americans, warned Earthjustice attorney Janette Brimmer, who emphasized that the failure to protect wetlands will have dangerous consequences.

“This really does affect everybody’s life,” Brimmer said in an interview. “It isn’t just what comes out of your tap.”

Wetlands are already very fragile, and their destruction compounds the risk of natural disasters.

“You’re going to see more flood events, both agriculturally but also municipally,” Brimmer said. “You’re going to see more pollutants in stormwater that goes shooting out instead of settling into wetland bases.”

The EPA stressed Tuesday that the Safe Drinking Water Act remains in place to protect drinking water. “The SDWA lays out the statutory roles and responsibilities for ensuring that our drinking water is safe and this action does not change that,” a spokesperson for the agency said in an email.

As noted by James Salzman, a former member of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council and the Trade and Environment Policy Advisory Committee, that safeguard means little for the millions of Americans who obtain their water from wells and not municipal systems.

The EPA representative told Courthouse News that the agency is following congressional directives to protect “navigable waters.”

“This rule protects the environment, and our water ways, while respecting states, localities, tribes, and private property owners,” the spokesperson said in an email. “It clearly delineates where federal regulations apply and gives these stakeholders more flexibility to determine how best to manage waters within their borders.”

Salzman on the other hand contends that it is precisely because states take up a wide range of regulation standards that federal oversight is necessary.

“We had that system before the Clean Water Act, and Lake Erie was declared biologically dead,” said Salzman, a professor of environmental law at the University of California. “We have been here before. The fact is some states are very stringent and some states aren’t.”

Salzman argued that the Clean Water Act sets the floor, not a ceiling, on regulations.

The federal government will continue to regulate what the EPA defines as “territorial seas and traditional navigable waters,” as well as tributaries that flow into the larger bodies of water and lakes, ponds and wetlands adjacent to other protected bodies.

Without requiring industries to seek permits for the long list of waterways no longer protected under the Clean Water Act, however, Earthjustice’s Brimmer warned that Americans will see wetlands dammed up and pipes pouring pollutants.

The environmental lawyer said Earthjustice plans to challenge today’s rule change in federal court.

As for the timing, Brimmer said there is no way of knowing why the administration finalized the rollback just before Earth Day.

“In either case, if it’s purposeful, that’s just downright terrible, even more terrible than it already is,” Brimmer said. “If it’s just cluelessness, that also speaks volumes, does it not?”

The EPA spokesperson said the agency is pleased the rule was published Tuesday and does not control the timing of its release in the Federal Register.