EPA’s huge Christmas gift to special interests

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, with the stroke of a pen, gave a huge Christmas gift to some very powerful special interests — chemical companies, big agriculture, oil and gas firms, and shady real estate developers. In doing so, he put the safety of one-third of the American public’s drinking water at risk. Merry Christmas!

He gave them a brand new WOTUS, “waters of the United States” a definition at the heart of an environmental controversy that has been brewing for decades. The Clean Water Act of 1972, one of the seminal environmental laws of our country, prohibits discharging pollution into water bodies like rivers and lakes and wetlands without a permit. But it is only as good as the definition of the statute’s key term — the “waters of United States,” which Congress left for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to define. And that definition has been in flux ever since, with the numerous iterations and court interpretations literally muddying the waters.


After a series of water catastophes, including the water in the southern end of Lake Erie turning a putrid shade of “grinch” green and the city of Flint’s water turning up with unhealthy levels of lead, President Obama’s administration put in place the most detailed definition of “waters of the U.S.” yet in 2015.

The new rule provided for the first time comprehensive protection by applying the Clean Water Law to most water bodies and wetlands in the U.S. You see, the water in lakes and ponds, rivers, streams and wetlands in our country is not as “crystal clean” as President Trump would have you believe

In fact, the U.S. ranks 29th overall in terms of water quality — and 54th when it comes to heavy metals and lead. Here are the facts, according to the Environmental Protection Agency itself:

  • More than two-thirds (71 percent) of our lakes, reservoirs and ponds, covering more than 13 million acres (larger than the size of the state of West Virginia) contain some measurable level of pollution
  • More than half (53 percent) of rivers and streams, or 580,000 miles worth, also contain measurable pollution
  • About 25 percent of rivers and 22 percent of lakes and reservoirs that supply drinking water contain measurable pollution

And actual conditions may be even worse — the EPA’s statistics are based on only those waters that have been tested or evaluated — well less than 50 percent in each category. As for the rest, who knows?

The rollback of the WOTUS rule does three detrimental things:

  • It shrinks greatly the types of water bodies that had been a WOTUS under the Obama rule so that only the largest and most expansive are covered
  • It expands the types of water bodies that are categorically excluded such as groundwater and agricultural drainage ditches
  • It limits the wetlands that are covered to only those with a continuous water connection to a WOTUS

What does that mean in real terms? It eliminates protection for 2 million miles of streams and 20 million acres of wetlands. Those are no longer safe from having chemicals and sewage dumped in them. Even if that dumping causes harm to the public — there is nothing that can be done about it because from now on it will be totally lawful.

The truth is that we have a massive poisoned water problem in this country. Just ask the 110 million Americans who have been exposed to toxic chemicals in their drinking water called PFASs that are used in making flame-retardants and metal coatings and have been documented at 172 sites in 40 states.

Or the Americans who were made ill by the two different types of toxic algae that have persisted in Lake Okeechobee and along the Florida coastline for months, killing fish and making it impossible to go to the beach, much less swim in these waters.

One study there showed that hospital admittances for respiratory problems jumped 54 percent as a result of the toxic algae in Florida. Exposure to it is akin to being tear-gassed, and eating fish that has been exposed to the toxic algae can be deadly.

Or ask the Americans who have most recently been made ill by eating romaine lettuce tainted with E coli bacteria, or the millions of American businesses and consumers who had to throw out perfectly good heads of romaine lettuce because we had no way to trace the dirty irrigation water source.

So when the new Congress begins its work in January, with Democrats able to control at least part of the legislative agenda, the first thing the House of Representatives should do is pass a law to reinstate the Obama administration’s WOTUS rule, and dare members of Congress to vote against it. I’m betting they won’t and here is why: because 80 percent of Americans are worried about the safety of freshwater and drinking water.

Indeed, polluted drinking water and the pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs are at the top of the list of Americans’ concerns about the environment and have been for decades. Just look at the farm bill that passed this week with overwhelming bipartisan support — it included billions of dollars to begin to deal with the problem of tainted water from agricultural pollution. The American public wants crystal clean water. The new Congress should at least try to give it to them by taking away Trump’s WOTUS.

Monica Medina was the principal deputy administrator of NOAA from 2009 to 2012. Medina is the co-founder and co-publisher of the largest daily independent environmental newsletter in the U.S., Our Daily Planet. Follow her on Twitter at @MonicaMedinaDC.