The Trump administration Tuesday moved to rescind the controversial “Waters of the U.S.” rule, an Obama-era regulation that gave Washington broad powers over streams and other small bodies of water across the country.
The rule, put forward in 2015 but subsequently stayed by the Supreme Court before going into effect, was one of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s top targets when he took the helm at the agency, and revoking it marks the latest step in an ongoing effort to roll back many of the previous administration’s environmental actions.
President Trump earlier this year signed an executive order directing Mr. Pruitt to review the rule, and with Tuesday’s step, the EPA says it’s finalized that review and will strike the regulation from the books outright.
“We are taking significant action to return power to the states and provide regulatory certainty to our nation’s farmers and businesses,” Mr. Pruitt said in a statement. “This is the first step in the two-step process to redefine ‘waters of the U.S.’ and we are committed to moving through this re-evaluation to quickly provide regulatory certainty, in a way that is thoughtful, transparent and collaborative with other agencies and the public.”
The action would return EPA authority over waterways to where it stood prior to the “Waters of the U.S.” rule. Under the Clean Water Act, the agency has jurisdiction over “navigable” waters, authority meant to ensure that the country’s drinking water supplies aren’t polluted.
But supporters of the rule have said that original definition wasn’t specific enough, and allowed for pollution to run from streams and other small waters into larger bodies that supply drinking water.
Tuesday’s action, critics say, directly puts millions of Americans in danger.
“With the rollback of the Clean Water Rule, Scott Pruitt and President Trump are poised to let industry and agriculture treat much of the nation’s drinking water supply like an ashtray, instead of a vital natural resource every single American relies on,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group. “Americans are paying the price of the administration’s near-constant assault on public health and the environment, but it’s a free ride for polluters, who face no consequences for contaminating our drinking water.”
EWG and other environmental groups argue that the rollback is dangerous because millions of Americans’ drinking water flows through small streams, and that the “Waters of the U.S.” rule was the only way to ensure that water would be free from pollution.
Opponents of the rule — including agricultural and business leaders, along with virtually all Republicans in Washington and in states across the country, particularly in the West — have said the regulation amounted to nothing more than a power grab by the federal government.
They said that under a strict reading of the rule, the EPA could have had jurisdiction over small puddles, ponds and ditches on farmland.
“The West has finally won in the battle over the Obama administration’s WOTUS rule,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said in a statement. “This regulation would have been a disaster for rural communities in the West and across the country, giving Washington near-total control over water resources. The livelihoods of American farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs were at stake.”
Mr. Pruitt and Army Corps of Engineers officials say they’ll finalize new rules clarifying the lengths of EPA’s authority of waterways across the country.
Supporters of the rule say such clarification is desperately needed because Tuesday’s action will result in confusion as to the bounds of federal power over water.
“Today’s move to rescind the [Waters of the U.S.] creates more risk for river health and more uncertainty for federal agencies, landowners and communities. By tossing out years of scientific study and public input, Scott Pruitt and the Trump administration are muddying the very waters the [rule] sought to clarify.” said Jo Ellen Darcy, a board member of the advocacy group American Rivers who helped author the regulation while assistant secretary of the Army for civil works in the Obama administration.