Trump administration to repeal waterway protections

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday announced final plans to redefine and thus shrink the waterways that must be protected under the law, a move likely to be swiftly challenged legally by environmentalists.

The final plans to repeal the 2015 Obama-era Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule would stymie the federal government’s capacity to regulate pollutants in wetlands and tributaries that feed into large rivers.

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EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerEPA, employee union sign contract after years of disputes OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump order aims to curb US agencies' use of foreign workers after TVA outrage | EPA transition back to the office alarms employees | Hundreds of green groups oppose BLM nominee EPA transition back to the office alarms employees MORE told a crowd Thursday afternoon that the plans will entirely scrap the prior definition of the rule, relegating waterway protections back to 1986 standards.

"Thanks to the leadership of the EPA we can move forward with a water rule that protects clean water, is within the bounds of the law and doesn’t pose a threat to manufacturing in America, Wheeler said.

"We have to have regulatory certainty, clean, fair smart regulations of environmental law."

EPA made the announcement at the National Association of Manufacturers' Washington, D.C. headquarters. The trade group has fervently lobbied for WOTUS's repeal. The gathered crowd included Reps. Bruce WestermanBruce Eugene WestermanInterior stresses 'showing up for work' after Grijalva tests positive for coronavirus Tuberville breaks DC self-quarantine policy to campaign Natural Resources Democrats again rebuff Republican complaints about virtual meetings MORE (R-AR.) and Sam GravesSamuel (Sam) Bruce GravesMissouri Rep. Sam Graves wins GOP primary OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated House approves .5T green infrastructure plan MORE (R-MO) as well as top executives at Dominion Energy, The American Farm Bureau Association and the National Association of Home Builders, many of which gave statements at the event.

The Administrator said the repeal was the first step in a process of ultimately replacing the WOTUS definition. The agency will announce those new guidelines for which water bodies should remain federally protected by the end of the year.

"In the proposal we are clearly defining the difference between federally regulated waterways and those of state authority," said Wheeler.

"Together, our proposed definition and existing state programs will provide a strong network of coverage with our nations water resources."

The Obama rule was initially intended to clarify that small waterways like ponds and headwaters can be protected by the EPA. But agriculture, developers and other industries complained that it was too far-reaching and would subject huge swaths of land to federal oversight.

Environmentalists say the rule is essential because small waterways eventually flow into larger ones. They say the rule is also necessary to protect drinking water sources from contamination.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew Bob Woodward book will include details of 25 personal letters between Trump and Kim Jong Un On The Money: Pelosi, Mnuchin talk but make no progress on ending stalemate | Trump grabs 'third rail' of politics with payroll tax pause | Trump uses racist tropes to pitch fair housing repeal to 'suburban housewife' Biden commemorates anniversary of Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally: 'We are in a battle for the soul of our nation' MORE made promises to dismantle the rule upon first coming into office. A February 2017 executive order directed the EPA to begin actions toward “the elimination of this very destructive and horrible rule.”

The EPA under former Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA looks to other statutes to expand scope of coming 'secret science' rule EPA ordered to reconsider New York efforts to tame downwind pollution OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA declines to tighten smog standards amid pressure from green groups | Democrats split on Trump plan to use development funds for nuclear projects| Russian mining giant reports another fuel spill in Arctic MORE first showed signs of dismantling WOTUS when Pruitt suspended the rule from implementation for two years in early 2018, promising to rewrite it to “reduce confusion and provide certainty to America's farmers and ranchers.”

The EPA first announced plans to repeal WOTUS last winter.

Wheeler pointed to Trump's focus on WOTUS for movement on the rule's repeal, saying the president "immediately set in motion a process to improve and replace regulatory burdens."

"Obama's WOTUS definition was at the top of the list," Wheeler said.

Wheeler also championed a report he said found that EPA was the top agency to comply with Trump's two for one executive order--which mandated that for every one regulation made, two must be repealed.

In August a pair of Republican Senators introduced legislation to put the onus on Congress instead of the EPA to define which waters should be regulated under the law. The bill proposed by Sens. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Speculation over Biden's running mate announcement Davis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Lincoln Project expands GOP target list, winning Trump ire MORE (R-Iowa) and Mike BraunMichael BraunDavis: The Hall of Shame for GOP senators who remain silent on Donald Trump Skepticism grows over Friday deadline for coronavirus deal Negotiators hit gas on coronavirus talks as frustration mounts MORE (R-Ind.) would dramatically scale back federal jurisdiction over water. 

“As a member of the Ag community, President Trump and EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler are keeping their promise to repealing the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule that gave unelected bureaucrats the power to regulate lakes, streams, ponds and ditches,” Braun said in a statement Thursday.   

Court rulings in 28 states have kept WOTUS from being fully implemented across the U.S.

Environmental groups are already threatening to sue over the repeal.

"EPA is misleading the public by claiming that this regulation simply repeals the 2015 Clean Water Rule,” said Kelly Foster, a senior attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance, in a statement.

“The truth is that this is an illegal attempt to reinterpret the prior longstanding regulatory definition to eliminate anti-pollution requirements for rivers, streams, wetlands and other waters that have been in place since the 1970s.”

Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the group plans to fight the rollback.

"This administration has shown nothing but disdain for America’s natural heritage and the wildlife we cherish,” said Hartl in a statement.

“We’ll fight this illegal rollback and every aspect of Trump’s incredibly harmful anti-environmental agenda.”

Updated 2:40 p.m.