Energy & Environment

Pruitt seeks to limit EPA’s authority to block water pollution permits


Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt is planning to limit the agency’s authority to block permits for activities that could pollute or harm waterways.

In an agency memo released Wednesday, Pruitt formally asked the EPA’s water office to propose a regulation under which officials wouldn’t be able to block a permit before it had been applied for or after the Army Corps of Engineers has issued the permit.

EPA staff in regional offices would have to get approval from headquarters before trying to block a water permit, and officials would have to provide a period for public comment before blocking permits.


The regulation would likely be the most significant change to how the EPA enforces the Clean Water Act’s restrictions on dredging or filling waterways in four decades.

Pruitt said the actions would increase regulatory certainty while still maintaining protections for clean water.

“Today’s memo refocuses EPA on its core mission of protecting public health and the environment in a way that is fair and consistent with due process,” Pruitt said in a statement.

“We must ensure that EPA exercises its authority under the Clean Water Act in a careful, predictable, and prudent manner.”

The permitting process at issue is at the core of the Clean Water Act. It restricts a wide range of activities that could harm lakes, rivers or other water bodies, like dumping pollutants into them or obstructing them.

The Army Corps has authority to issue or deny permits, but the EPA has the power to veto permits if it determines that they would be unacceptably harmful.

The EPA has rarely blocked the permits pre-emptively or retroactively, but previous administrations have defended their ability to do so. Republicans and industries that often rely on the permits argue that both actions are improper uses of the Clean Water Act.

“Any new regulations should seek to address significant concerns surrounding the EPA’s prior use of its veto authority before a permit application has been filed or after a permit has been issued,” Pruitt wrote in the memo.

“This long-overdue update to the regulations has the promise of increasing certainty for landowners, investors, businesses and entrepreneurs to make investment decisions while preserving the EPA’s authority to restrict discharges of dredge or fill material that will have an unacceptable adverse effect on water supplies, recreation, fisheries and wildlife.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in 2014 that the EPA is within its power to retroactively veto water permits, and the Supreme Court declined to take up an appeal of the case.

The EPA proposed under the Obama administration to pre-emptively veto a permit for the Pebble Mine in Alaska. The Trump administration EPA initially sought to rescind the proposal, but decided earlier this year to keep the proposal in place.

For any new regulation, the EPA would first have to release a formal proposal and invite public comment. Opponents could then sue in court to try to stop the changes.

Tags Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt Water pollution
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