Trump administration scales back U.S. water protections

Washington | Reuters — The Trump administration finalized a rule on Thursday to pare back the types of waterways protected from pollution under federal law, easing burdens on industries such as agriculture and mining but angering environmental groups.

The Navigable Waters Protection Rule could win political points ahead of the November election for Republican President Donald Trump in the Farm Belt, a key constituency.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the rule at a meeting of the National Association of Home Builders in Las Vegas. It narrows the definition of “waters of the United States” that are protected under the 1972 Clean Water Act from pollutants such as fertilizers, pesticides and mining waste.

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It reduces uncertainty and curtails the need for farmers, landowners and businesses “to hire teams of attorneys to tell them how to use their own land,” Wheeler told reporters in a teleconference.

The rule rolls back protections going back decades. Protections now exclude certain types of waterways like seasonal streams and wetlands.

Fourteen states, including New York and California, along with the District of Columbia said the EPA’s proposal would end federal protection for half of the nation’s wetlands and 15 per cent of streams across the country.

The EPA’s panel of scientific advisers, including several appointed by Trump, said last year in a draft report that it was “not fully consistent with established EPA recognized science” to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of U.S. waters.

An administration official on Wheeler’s call said: “science has informed the development of this rule.”

The rule, expected to take effect in days or weeks, will replace the Obama-era Clean Water Rule, which broadly defined the nation’s waters to include ephemeral streams and wetlands. It was rescinded by the EPA last year after industry groups said it was too onerous.

“That was a rule that basically took your property away from you. As long as I’m president, government will never micromanage America’s farmers,” Trump said Sunday in a speech at the American Farm Bureau’s annual meeting in Texas.

‘All-out assault’

Anne Bradbury, CEO of the American Exploration and Production Council, an industry group of independent energy drillers, praised the administration for giving “regulatory certainty to expand and responsibly develop our vast natural resources” in an “environmentally protective way.”

“This new rule gives the flexibility and clarity needed to implement stewardship practices without the threat of government action,” Iowa corn and cow-calf producer Kevin Ross, president of the U.S. National Corn Growers Association, said in a statement.

Farmers, he said, “are committed to protecting the environment and implementing on-farm soil health practices like planting cover crops, reducing tillage and more carefully managing crop residue” and the new rule “will protect our nation’s water and be implemented without confusion.”

Environmental groups took issue with the EPA’s insistence that the ephemeral and other waterways will be adequately protected by state and local regulations and by farmers and landowners.

“This all-out assault on basic safeguards will send our country back to the days when corporate polluters could dump whatever sludge or slime they wished into the streams and wetlands that often connect to the water we drink,” said Janette Brimmer, an attorney with Earthjustice.

Reporting for Reuters by Valerie Volcovici and Timothy Gardner. Includes files from Glacier FarmMedia Network staff.

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