The Trump administration on Thursday finalized a rule that removes federal protections from millions of acres of wetlands and hundreds of thousands of the nation’s streams.
The new rule, put together by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, will serve as a replacement to President Barack Obama’s 2015 Waters of the United States regulation, better known as WOTUS or the Clean Water Rule. President Donald Trump made it his mission early in his presidency to dismantle the Obama-era measure, which had sought to clarify which streams and wetlands should be protected under the 1972 federal Clean Water Act.
The Obama rule extended federal safeguards to 2 million miles of streams and 20 million acres of wetlands, ultimately securing the drinking water of millions of Americans.
“Today, thanks to our new rule, our nation’s farmers, ranchers, developers, manufacturers and other landowners can finally refocus on providing the food, shelter and other commodities that Americans rely on every day, instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars on attorneys and consultants to determine whether waters on their own land fall under the control of the federal government,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a call with reporters Thursday.
Environmental experts have warned of the far-reaching and likely devastating impacts of the Trump rule, which could put the drinking water of millions of Americans at risk, imperil food safety and threaten countless natural habitats ― and the creatures that call them home.
The move is about protecting polluting industries instead of public health, said Blan Holman, a lawyer and water expert at the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“This rule is the culmination of an insider campaign to gut bipartisan protections that have safeguarded the nation’s water for decades, and will endanger the health and environment of families and communities across the entire country,” he said in a statement to HuffPost. “If allowed to stand, this bulldozing of clean water protections would be among this administration’s dirtiest, most dangerous deeds.”
Trump has excoriated the Obama water rule as a “disaster” and “one of the worst examples of federal regulation.” He signed an executive order within weeks of taking office to scrap the rule and ultimately repealed it in September.
But Trump and his team weren’t content with merely scrapping the Obama-era regulation. The president’s personal business stands to directly benefit from the overhaul, as it will ease restrictions on pesticide and fertilizer use at golf courses.
The new rule doesn’t just toss out the protections introduced by Trump’s predecessor, but eliminates protections to smaller headwaters that have been in place for decades, according to legal experts and environmentalists. More than half the country’s wetlands and millions of miles of streams are expected to lose federal protection under the new rule, Politico reported.
“Waters that have been protected for almost 50 years will no longer be protected under the Clean Water Act,” Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at Vermont Law School, told The New York Times this week.
The final rule will take effect 60 days after publication in the Federal Register, likely later this week.
Industry groups, including big agribusiness, real estate developers and fossil fuel companies, have celebrated the long-awaited replacement of Obama’s rule. At the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention on Sunday, Trump’s announcement of the overhaul was met with applause and cheers.
“I terminated one of the most ridiculous regulations of all: the last administration’s disastrous Waters of the United States rule,” Trump said. “It’s gone. That was a rule that basically took your property away from you.”
The president, however, didn’t mention the potential risks of the rule’s rollback. The drinking water of more than 100 million Americans could be threatened, as could the well-being of many animal and plant species, including endangered ones.
Pollutants in waterways could also endanger food safety, experts say, as well as recreational industries like hunting and sport fishing.
Even scientists appointed by the Trump administration have warned of the potential hazards.
The EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, comprised of many Trump administration appointees, warned last month that the new rule is “not fully consistent with established EPA recognized science, may not fully meet the key objectives of the [Clean Water Act] ... and is subject to a lack of clarity for implementation.”
The rule, the board added, “threatens to weaken protection of the nation’s waters” and potentially introduces “substantial new risks to human and environmental health.”
Trump’s new rule is not expected to go unchallenged. Several state attorneys general, with the support of environmental groups, are likely to sue the Trump administration over the measure.
“So much for the ‘crystal clear’ water President Trump promised,” Gina McCarthy, a former EPA administrator and new president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “This effort neglects established science and poses substantial new risks to people’s health and the environment. We will do all we can to fight this attack on clean water. We will not let it stand.”
This story has been updated with comments from EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and environmental advocates.