EPA moves to repeal Obama water rule

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally proposed Tuesday to repeal the Obama administration’s controversial regulation that extended the reach of the federal government over small waterways.

Under the proposal from the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers, federal officials would go back to enforcing a guidance document from 2008 when deciding whether a waterway is subject to federal oversight for pollution control purposes.

It’s the first formal step by the EPA to fulfilling President Trump’s campaign promise to repeal the 2015 “waters of the United States” regulation, which Republicans and numerous industry groups have long argued would have subject farmers, developers and others to costly and time-intensive federal permitting for everyday activities like moving soil.

The Trump administration plans to separately write a new regulation to replace the water rule with a more industry-friendly definition of federal power over waterways.

“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 in a statement.

“This is the first step in the two-step process to redefine ‘waters of the U.S.’ and we are committed to moving through this re-evaluation to quickly provide regulatory certainty, in a way that is thoughtful, transparent and collaborative with other agencies and the public.”

Trump had signed an executive order in February formally asking Pruitt to consider repealing the rule and replacing it with a more limited one.

The Obama rule asserted federal power over ponds, headwaters, wetlands and other water bodies that feed into larger water areas, but whose Clean Water Act jurisdiction was unclear because of conflicting Supreme Court cases.

The Obama administration said that the drinking water supplies for 117 million Americans rely on protection by the rule, which it had dubbed the Clean Water Rule. Wildlife, recreation and navigation activities also depend on those waterways, the previous administration argued.

But it was controversial from the start, with accusations that it would give the federal government control over large swaths of the country, like dry land and puddles. Numerous states and industries sued to stop it, and a federal court in Cincinnati blocked the government from enforcing it while the litigation proceeded.

Environmentalists quickly slammed the Trump administration’s action as a direct attack on water protection.

“It is appalling, though not surprising, that the Trump administration is rolling back these critical protections in order to help out corporate interests,” League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said in a statement.

“The Clean Water Rule is vital for protecting the small streams and wetlands that our families, communities, and businesses depend on, and we know this is the first step in the administration’s effort to gut the Clean Water Act itself,” he said. “But just like the attacks on efforts to tackle climate change and the proposed rollback of our national monuments, and so much more, the Trump administration will face fierce opposition.”

“This proposal strikes directly at public health,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It would strip out needed protections for the streams that feed drinking water sources for one in every three Americans. Clean water is too important for that. We’ll stand up to this reckless attack on our waters and health.”

Supporters of the president applauded the action.

“The final WOTUS rule issued by the last administration was unworkable, a fact acknowledged by courts around the country, and amounted to a massive grab of regulatory authority by an EPA that was overreaching,” said Bill Kovacs, vice president for environment and regulatory policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“We look forward to working with Administrator Pruitt and his team to craft a rule that protects public health and the environment, while giving clarity and certainty to our nation’s farmers and job creators,” he said.

“Today marks the beginning of restoring private property rights while protecting our environment,” said Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.). “Out of state D.C. bureaucrats shouldn’t impose regulations that hurt Montana farmers, ranchers and landowners.”

The EPA will publish the proposal in the Federal Register within days, at which point the agency will start accepting comments from the public. After considering the comments and making any necessary changes, the agency can make the repeal final.

Finalizing the repeal would then open the door to likely lawsuits from environmental groups, Democratic states and others.