Dirtiest week for water in EPA history
Before the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, our nation’s waters were in trouble. Lake Erie was virtually dead, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, and the Androscoggin River in Maine was so polluted it peeled paint on nearby buildings. Many of America’s waters had become little more than lifeless, open sewers.
Nobody wants to return to the bad old days of polluted, dirty rivers. Nobody, it seems, except the very agency in charge of protecting our waters.
After nearly a half-century of successfully collaborating with states to implement the Clean Water Act, we have just experienced the dirtiest week for water in the Environmental Protection Agency’s history – a three-pronged attack on the Clean Water Act’s ability to keep our water safe and clean.
First, the EPA closed a notably short period for public comment on a proposed rule that would eliminate protections for half of America’s wetlands and countless miles of smaller streams that provide drinking water for millions and serve as the lifeblood of larger streams and rivers. This rule denies the basic science that water flows downhill and that pollution upstream ends up in larger rivers. Similarly, wetlands are the filters and sponges of our aquatic systems. Allowing them to be drained and destroyed for parking lots, corn fields and other uses mean more pollution, larger floods and less habitat for wildlife.
But that was not all. The EPA also announced in an “interpretive statement” that Clean Water Act protections would no longer apply to pollution or sewage discharged into underground wells or aquifers — even if the polluted discharge flows directly into drinking water sources such as lakes or rivers.
Finally, all this happened within days of an order from President Trump instructing the EPA to tie states’ hands in protecting local water quality by constraining the time and information they have to decide whether to approve or veto polluting projects. This will limit the ability of states to object to federally permitted projects, like new reservoirs or oil and gas pipelines, which can be harmful to water quality.
Sadly, this dirtiest of dirty water weeks is par for the course for this administration. In the last two years, we’ve seen attack after attack on clean water with attempts to whittle away decades-old safeguards.
For example, the Trump administration is re-writing the rules to restrict EPA’s express authority under the Clean Water Act to block projects with unacceptable environmental impacts. Although it has been used just 13 times, EPA’s actions have saved 210,000 acres of wetlands and 36 miles of rivers and streams in 11 states. Now EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is contemplating overturning a veto from the George W. Bush administration that blocked a particularly egregious wetland drainage project known as the Yazoo Backwater Pumps.
And the list continues. The Army Corps has also drafted new guidance — which has not been made available to the public for input — restricting the time states have to review Clean Water Act permits to dredge or fill wetlands and streams. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an interim final rule that makes it easier for landowners to drain seasonal wetlands while still receiving federal farm bill subsidies.
The public opposes these types of attacks on the nation’s waters. For example, more than half a million Americans spoke out against the proposed reductions to the scope of the Clean Water Act — despite the short public comment period. We cannot do without clean drinking water. And we can’t afford to have an administration or an EPA that are willing to risk the health and well-being of all Americans to benefit a few industries that seek to profit from fouling our waters.
Jim Murphy is the director of legal advocacy for the National Wildlife Federation