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 bans sale of COVID-19 disinfectant authorized under Trump OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland reportedly recommends full restoration of monuments Trump altered | EPA to reinstate air pollution panel disbanded under Trump | State appeals court upholds approval of Minnesota pipeline EPA to reinstate air pollution panel disbanded under Trump 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 WestermanPush for Civilian Climate Corps highlights underlying obstacles to restoring public lands Honoring America's real VIPs House passes bill to remove Confederate statues from Capitol MORE (R-AR.) and Sam GravesSamuel (Sam) Bruce GravesHouse passes 0B package, hoping to sway infrastructure debate GOP lawmaker points to Colonial Pipeline as infrastructure vulnerability Gas shortages spread to more states 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 TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away 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 PruittWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Saluting FOIA on its birthday Watchdog found EPA employees kept on payroll by Trump appointees after they were fired: report 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 ErnstGrassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa Republicans focus tax hike opposition on capital gains change Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund MORE (R-Iowa) and Mike BraunMichael BraunCDC backtracks with new mask guidance GOP senators invite Yellen to brief them on debt ceiling expiration, inflation Rand Paul introducing measure to repeal public transportation mask mandates 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.