Under the radar rollback of stream and wetland protections

The Trump administration has taken yet another step in its aggressive efforts to roll back many of the nation’s environmental regulations. The latest is a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to weaken its nationwide permit system —a lesser-known, but important set of requirements that limit the dredging and filling of streams and wetlands protected under the Clean Water Act (CWA).  

The Aug. 3 proposal calls for the reissue and modification of the Corps’ nationwide permits (NWPs). Historically, NWPs have been used by the Corps to allow small-scale filling of wetlands with little or no oversight. In contrast, individual permits are required for large projects, which can be complex and time-consuming to obtain. The proposed changes will greatly expand the use of NWPs. The result will be reduced controls on the dredging and filling of the nation’s wetlands, which protect against flooding, improve water quality and provide critical habitats for fish and wildlife.

The proposal weakens the NWP requirements for all energy-related activities, such as coal mining and pipeline construction, as well as residential development, agricultural activities, recreational facilities, stormwater management facilities and hard rock mining. If finalized as currently written, it will significantly increase the amount of fill material that can be discharged into streams and wetlands with little oversight by the Corps. The Corps currently uses NWPs to authorize tens of thousands of dredge-and-fill activities every year, so the increase will have a significant negative impact on the nation’s water quality. 

Importantly, the Corps is proposing to eliminate the requirement that many activities permitted under an NWP not result in the loss of more than 300 linear feet of stream bed. The proposal substitutes a much-more lenient one-half acre limit. That change will allow coal mines to fill up to 3,470 feet of small streams, like the ones we see in Appalachian coal country, by simply submitting a notice of intent to the Corps. 

This change alone will likely increase both the number of streams filled and the amount of fill from mountaintop coal mining that can be used. It has the potential to destroy miles of stream headwaters in the United States. While causing significant environmental damage, this regulatory effort will result in a paltry cost savings to industry of $8 million per year nationwide, according to Corps projections.

The new permits will also compound the loss of wetlands and streams caused by the Trump administration’s new Waters of the United States rule, which removed CWA protections from about 18 percent of the nation’s waters and over 50 percent of wetlands.

Many of the Trump administration’s proposed regulatory rollbacks have garnered national attention, and many lawsuits have been filed challenging them. But proposed changes to lesser-known protections like this one can also do serious harm to people’s health and the environment for years to come. 

The Corps is rushing these proposed changes out the door even though the permit requirements do not expire until 2022, and is only allowing 60 days for public comment. Everyone should comment. We should not let this proposed rollback fly under the radar. 

Mark Ryan served as an assistant regional counsel for EPA Region 10 and special assistant U.S. attorney at the Department of Justice. Ryan was an author of the 2015 Clean Water Rule. Betsy Southerland is the former director of Science & Technology in the EPA Office of Water

Tags Army Corps of Engineers Clean Water Act coal mines CWA environmental policy environmental restriction rollbacks nationwide permitting system NWP permitting system rule rollbacks streams wetlands

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