Energy & Environment

Green groups sue over Trump rollback of Obama-era waterway protections

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Two separate coalitions of environmental groups sued the Trump administration on Wednesday, challenging a rollback of protections for the nation’s waterways.

The Navigable Waters Protection Rule finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in January limits federal protections for smaller bodies of water, a move critics say risks contamination of larger ones used for drinking water.

“Our nation’s majestic waterways depend for their health on the smaller streams and wetlands that filter pollution and protect against flooding, but the Trump administration wants to ignore the science demonstrating that,” the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed a suit on behalf of eight of the groups, said in a statement Wednesday. “This regulation is plainly unlawful. It violates the simple but powerful mandate of the Clean Water Act to protect the integrity of our nation’s waters.”

The new rule is the final replacement of the Obama-era Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule, which President Trump vowed to dismantle during the 2016 campaign.

WOTUS asserted that the interconnectivity of water required protecting small and even seasonal water bodies caused by snowmelt in order to prevent pollution and pesticides from flowing elsewhere.

Critics argue the new rule eviscerates the protections guaranteed by the decades-old Clean Water Act, not just reversing Obama-era protections but setting the U.S even further back.

“This is not just undoing the clean water rule promulgated by the Obama administration. This is going back to the lowest level of protection we’ve seen in the last 50 years,” Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said in a call with reporters when the rule was finalized. “This is a staggering rollback.”

Environmental groups plan to argue in court that the rule ignores scientific studies showing how the health of larger water bodies is dependent on smaller ones while denying protections guaranteed under the Clean Water Act.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that pollution dumped upstream flows downstream, but the agencies shut their eyes to science and common sense. That violation of the law is why we’re going to court to protect clean water,” the Southern Environmental Law Center wrote in a release to accompany a separate suit on behalf of 14 environmental groups.

That’s a view shared by some affiliated with the EPA. The agency’s independent Science Advisory Board reviewed the rule when it was first proposed, writing in a draft report that “aspects of the proposed rule are in conflict with established science … and the objectives of the Clean Water Act.”

The EPA wouldn’t comment on the suits directly, but argued the rule “will stand the test of time as it is securely grounded in the text of the Clean Water Act and is supported by legislative history and Supreme Court case law.”

Scrapping WOTUS was part of Trump’s effort to woo farmers, who argued the Obama-era protections subjected huge swaths of land to federal oversight.

“As long as I’m president, government will never micromanage America’s farmers,” Trump told audience members at the American Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting just days before the replacement rule was announced.

Ranchers were among the first to file a suit against the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, arguing in a suit filed Monday that the new rule is still an example of federal overreach.

—Updated at 3:30 p.m.

Tags Clean Water Act Donald Trump EPA Lawsuit Massachusetts NRDC Water pollution WOTUS
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