Nation & World

Trump's EPA repeals clean water rule decried by farmers

Rollback leaves pollution rules from the 1980s in place for now

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler testifies April 19 before a House Energy and Commerce Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee hearing on the EPA budget. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler testifies April 19 before a House Energy and Commerce Environment and Climate Change Subcommittee hearing on the EPA budget. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — To the delight of farmers but the dismay of environmentalists, the Trump administration announced Thursday the repeal of an Obama-era regulation that widely expanded federal pollution protections for small waterways such as wetlands and streams.

The move to repeal the 2015 Waters of the United States rule, known as WOTUS, is part of a broader effort by President Donald Trump to roll back environmental regulations to boost industry and show support for farmers and miners.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the EPA and the Army would reinstate water rules from the 1980s and then begin redefining which waterways can be regulated, a task to be completed by this winter.

“Today’s Step 1 action fulfills a key promise of President Trump and sets the stage for Step 2 — a new WOTUS definition that will provide greater regulatory certainty for farmers, landowners, homebuilders and developers nationwide,” he said in a statement.

“This final rule re-establishes national consistency across the country,” said R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works. He said it will eliminate the “patchwork” of definitions of waterways regulated under the Clean Water Act as a result of various court decisions enjoining the 2015 rule.

The Obama-era rule had been in place in 22 states. Courts blocked it from ever taking effect in others including Iowa.

President Barack Obama’s WOTUS rule had defined which streams and wetlands are protected by the 1972 Clean Water Act from pollutants including pesticides, fertilizers and mine waste.

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But farmers and industry groups said the rule went too far, impeding their operations by extending the pollution restrictions to small, unnavigable waters — some of which appeared only after it had rained.

The Iowa Farm Bureau asserted the rule gave the EPA authority over waters in 97 percent of the state’s land mass.

“That’s why I’ve fought hard to ensure we get Washington’s hands out of Iowans’ lives by scrapping Obama’s burdensome rule,” said a statement from U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. “I’m thrilled to see the Trump administration take decisive action that will remove this threat to Iowa’s farmers, manufacturers, and small businesses, and get us one step closer to providing the predictability and certainty hardworking folks across the country deserve.”

Along with Ernst, fellow Iowa Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley has long fought the rule.

“Excessive government regulation stifles production, makes living and working harder for millions of Americans and slows economic activity. We’ve seen this time and again, particularly when it comes to the WOTUS rule,” he said in a statement.

But California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has led dozens of lawsuits against Trump administration policy rollbacks, said Thursday his state is “prepared to defend” the Obama clean water rule because its cutback would remove many California waters from federal protection.

Environmental groups have said the Obama rule was necessary to protect drinking water sources at risk from agribusiness and industry.

Earthjustice and other environmental groups warned that the repeal will threaten drinking water and weaken safeguards that help reduce flooding and filter out pollution from streams and wetlands.

Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at the Environmental Working Group, said Wheeler’s decision to announce the final repeal at the headquarters of the National Association of Manufacturers showed favoritism for industry over public health.

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“The EPA is no longer in the business of safeguarding our resources and protecting us from pollution, but is openly working to advance the agenda of those who profit from fouling our water and threatening our health,” he said.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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