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 WheelerOvernight Energy: Critics question data behind new Trump water rule | Groups seek more time to comment on Trump environmental rollback | EPA under scrutiny over backlog of toxic waste cleanups Critics question data used in rule replacing Obama-era waterway protections Overnight Energy: Trump issues rule replacing Obama-era waterway protections | Pelosi slams new rule as 'an outrageous assault' | Trump water policy exposes sharp divides 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 WestermanOvernight Energy: Trump at Davos joins effort to plant 1 trillion trees | Trump says he doesn't know 'very angry' Greta Thunberg | New details on GOP climate plan | Trump withdraws water supply rule New details on Republican climate plan show emphasis on trees Overnight Energy: Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel | GOP lawmakers push back on bill to make greener refrigerators, air conditioners | Green groups sue Trump over California fracking plans MORE (R-AR.) and Sam GravesSamuel (Sam) Bruce GravesDemocratic lawmaker asks for probe of reports Chao favored Kentucky officials Trump administration to repeal waterway protections Republicans spend more than million at Trump properties 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 TrumpTrump denies telling Bolton Ukraine aid was tied to investigations Former senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Title, release date revealed for Bolton memoir 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 employees push 'bill of rights' to protect scientific integrity EPA's independent science board questions underpinnings of numerous agency rollbacks Overnight Energy: Rate of new endangered species listings falls | EPA approves use of 'cyanide bombs' to protect livestock | Watchdog says EPA didn't conduct required analyses 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 ErnstSchiff pushes back: Defense team knows Trump is guilty Schiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line Grassley signs USMCA, sending it to Trump's desk MORE (R-Iowa) and Mike BraunMichael BraunSunday shows - Spotlight shifts to Trump tweet, Senate trial witnesses GOP senator says impeachment trial will 'hopefully' serve as warning to Trump, future presidents Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers prepare for week two of impeachment trial 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.