Trump administration moves to withdraw clean-water rule

John Flesher and Michael Biesecker
Associated Press
FILE - In this June 2, 2017, file photo, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington.  The Trump administration is taking steps to roll back an Obama administration policy that protected more than half the nation’s streams from pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday outlined a process for rescinding a 2015 regulation that defines which waterways are covered under the Clean Water Act.   (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration moved Tuesday to roll back an Obama administration policy that protected more than half the nation's streams from pollution but drew attacks from farmers, fossil fuel companies and property-rights groups as federal overreach.

The 2015 regulation sought to settle a debate over which waterways are covered under the Clean Water Act, which has dragged on for years and remained murky despite two Supreme Court rulings. President Donald Trump issued an executive order in February instructing the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rescind or revise the Obama rule, which environmentalists say is essential to protecting water for human consumption and wildlife.

In a statement, the agencies announced plans to begin the withdrawal process, describing it as an interim step. When it is completed, the agencies said, they will undergo a broader review of which waters should fall under federal jurisdiction.

"We are taking significant action to return power to the states and provide regulatory certainty to our nation's farmers and businesses," EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said, adding that the re-evaluation would be "thoughtful, transparent and collaborative with other agencies and the public."

Brad Schimel

Attorney General Brad Schimel, along with West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, and 19 other state attorneys general applauded the action of Pruitt.

Earlier this month, AGs Schimel and Morrisey led a 20-state coalition in requesting the EPA preserve the role of the states in protecting the nation’s water sources. The states were also successful in winning a nationwide stay in 2015 blocking enforcement of the rule.

“We fully support the proposed rule signed by EPA Administrator Pruitt today as a significant step in the direction of withdrawing the unlawful WOTUS rule. The WOTUS rule asserts sweeping federal authority over usually dry channels, roadside ditches, and isolated streams," Schimel said in a statement. "The rule also asserts federal authority over land covered by water only once every one hundred years. We look forward to EPA’s final action withdrawing the WOTUS rule and providing relief for our states and their citizens.”

Environmental groups denounced the move, saying it would remove drinking water safeguards for one in three Americans while jeopardizing thousands of streams that flow into larger rivers and lakes, plus wetlands that filter pollutants and soak up floodwaters.

"Clean water is vital to our ecology, our health and our quality of life," said John Rumpler, senior attorney with Environment America. "Repealing the Clean Water Rule turns the mission of the EPA on its head."

The EPA and the Army Corps said dismantling the Obama rule would not change existing practices because the measure has been stayed by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in response to opponents' lawsuits.

Jim Holte

Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Jim Holte said the proposed rule was a "blatant overreach of EPA and US Army Corps of Engineers’ jurisdiction and broadens their authority to regulate waters and land".

"It jeopardizes a farmer’s ability to carry out normal farming practices. It could require a federal permit to do things as simple as plant seed corn that has a protectant on it, spread fertilizer, or apply crop protectant products to control weeds or insects,” Holte said.

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall concurred, adding that farmers and ranchers already work hard to protect natural resources every day.

“But this rule was never really about clean water. It was a federal land grab designed to put a straightjacket on farming and private businesses across this nation. That’s why our federal courts blocked it from going into effect for the past two years," Duvall said. "Tuesday's announcement shows EPA Administrator Pruitt recognizes the WOTUS rule for what it is—an illegal and dangerous mistake that needs to be corrected."

Duvall said the EPA should ditch the rule once and for all, go back to the drawing board, and write a new rule that protects water quality without trampling the rights of businesses and the states.

Zippy Duvall

The proposed repeal is the latest in a series of Trump moves to undo President Barack Obama's environmental legacy, including withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord, rescinding the Clean Power Plan that sought to curb carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants and reversing a moratorium on leasing federal lands for coal mining. Trump also has proposed deep cuts in the EPA budget.

The Wisconsin DOJ also contributed to this report