WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration on Tuesday unveiled its plan to replace an Obama-era rule that sought to safeguard drinking water for millions of Americans by extending federal protections to 2 million miles of streams and 20 million acres of wetlands.
Speaking at a press conference late Tuesday morning, Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the rule proposed “a new definition of Waters of the U.S.,” replacing the 2015 regulation “with one that respects the rule of law” and “end years of where federal jurisdiction ends and begins.”
Waters of the U.S., also known as the WOTUS rule or the Clean Water Rule, explicitly defined which waterways were covered under the 1972 Clean Water Act, expanding federal protections to all “navigable” waters and securing the drinking water of more than 117 million Americans.
The new proposal would put strict limits on which waterways qualify for federal protections as opposed to state protections, which are seen as easier for industrial players to challenge.
“Today EPA and the Army Corps are proposing a new definition that puts and end to the previous administration’s power grab,” he said.
Wheeler ― who was joined onstage by federal lawmakers, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and deputies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Army ― railed against press reports, which he said used incomplete data from the Obama administration.
“Please take a close look at the proposal, not necessarily the news reports,” Wheeler said.
The rollback is the latest example of the Trump administration putting industry ahead of public health and environmental protection. And it comes after President Donald Trump repeated assurances that he wants “crystal-clean water.”
Last January, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt signed an executive order to suspend the Clean Water Rule for two years, giving the administration time to write a replacement.
Farmers and industry groups challenged the Clean Water Rule, arguing it amounted to overreach that would impose costly changes to comply. A federal judge stayed the Clean Water Rule in 2015, and the rule has since bounced between courts. Last January, the Supreme Court sent the case back to a district court. But Pruitt, in the meantime, began the process of repealing the rule outright.
Pruitt hinted at the looming changes during a congressional hearing in April, saying WOTUS determinations “have been so inconsistent, so different in certain parts of the country that ephemeral drainage ditches, dry creek beds, puddles, prairie potholes in North Dakota, you know, are considered waters of the United States, which I believe, looking at the text of the Clean Water Act, clearly was not within the intent of Congress.”
Pruitt resigned in disgrace in July amid mounting corruption accusations and ethics investigations. But Wheeler, his deputy, took over, putting a more-skilled Beltway bureaucrat at the levers of an identical policy agenda. Wheeler even went on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show Tuesday morning to announce the proposal, giving an interview to the same conservative radio host who infamously defended Pruitt without disclosing that the former EPA chief gave his son a job at the agency. Hewitt worked as a Clean Water Act consultant for decades, which made for chummy banter between the men on Tuesday.
“I hope I don’t end up putting you out of business on the consulting side,” Wheeler said, “because my goal for this is so that any property owner can stand on his or her property and be able to tell for themselves whether or not they have a federal waterway on their property without having to hire a lawyer or an outside consultant.”
The rollback directly benefits the president’s personal business, easing restrictions on golf-course operators. Under the proposed new rule, Trump’s owned or branded courses ― including two in Florida, three in New York, two in New Jersey and others in Virginia, California, North Carolina and Pennsylvania ― would face fewer rules on pesticide and fertilizer use, according to a report from the consumer watchdog Public Citizen.
“In January, investigating this move should be high up on the oversight agenda of the new U.S. House of Representatives,” Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, said in a statement. “The Congress should investigate the internal debate that surely occurred within the EPA, because it is highly unlikely that career staff believe this move to be scientifically or legally defensible.”
The deregulatory action is likely to face pushback from Democratically controlled states. The California Senate is already considering a bill that would bar the state from weakening environmental rules to match federal deregulations. Wheeler said Tuesday “nothing will change for California’s waters.”