Environmentalists say a narrower federal regulation will create a race to the bottom and leave downstream states to bear the brunt of the harm.
The Trump administration on Tuesday initiated the biggest rollback of Clean Water Act protections since shortly after the statute became law in 1972, proposing to remove federal pollution safeguards for tens of thousands of miles of streams and millions of acres of wetlands.
The EPA’s proposed rule would overwrite a stricter Obama-era regulation, in yet another attack on the legacy of President Donald Trump’s predecessor. But the rollback would go much further than just erasing Barack Obama’s work.
The Trump proposal represents the latest front in a decades-long battle over the scope of the landmark environmental law, whose requirements can impose major costs on energy companies, farmers, ranchers and real estate developers. Reversing Obama’s water regulation was one of Trump’s top environmental priorities — he signed an executive order directing the new rule barely a month after taking office, even as he repeatedly said he wanted «crystal clear water.»
Geoff Gisler, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, called the proposal a “sledgehammer to the Clean Water Act.”
“Out of all the anti-environmental attacks we have seen from this administration, this may be the most far-reaching and destructive,” he said in a statement.
The new proposal embraces a view that industry groups have pushed for years: that the law should cover only major rivers, their primary tributaries and wetlands along their banks. Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said this will save regulatory costs for industries such as mining and homebuilding, while arguing it will have little impact on the health of the country’s waters.
“Our new, more precise definition means that hard-working Americans will spend less time and money determining whether they need a federal permit, and more time upgrading aging infrastructure, building homes, creating jobs and growing crops to feed our families,” Wheeler said on a call Monday with reporters to unveil the proposal.
The scale of those changes could be felt acutely across the country.
In the arid West, where the majority of streams flow only after rainfall or for part of the year, entire watersheds would be left unprotected from pollution. In Arizona, for instance, as much as 94 percent of its waters could lose federal protection under the new definition, depending on the how the agencies interpret key terms. Meanwhile, Arizona state law also prevents it from regulating waterways more stringently than the federal government requires.

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