Now that the Trump administration’s performance at the COP 24 meeting in Poland has thoroughly trampled over climate-change protections, Trump is moving on from promoting air pollution to embark on a crusade to unleash pollution in the nation’s waters.
With a sweeping proposed revision to the Clean Water Act (CWA), Trump finally made good on a longstanding effort that began with the famously corrupt, now-ousted EPA chief Scott Pruitt: dismantling the federal law that protects the nation’s waterways, aquatic habitats and drinking water.
Early on in his administration Trump attempted to roll back key water protections by unraveling the Obama administration’s updated regulation to the CWA, which established a much broader regulatory scope for waterways nationwide. Though his earlier attacks on the CWA were blocked in court, Trump’s latest stab at destroying public health and ecological protections would essentially strip federal oversight from vast swaths of the country’s wetlands, streams, ponds, and related habitats. Because it threatens to leave major portions of communities’ water supplies and ecosystems virtually unprotected against pollution, environmental advocates have denounced the proposal as a blank check for corporations, agribusiness, and real-estate developers.
The new rule making weakens and shrinks the breadth of the CWA by rescinding the legal framework the Obama administration installed with its landmark Waters of the US (WOTUS) rule. By exempting many key water bodies affected by pollution and waste, such as wetlands and tributaries, Trump’s plan could affect the drinking water of an estimated 100 million people, and remove protections for major portions of wetland habitats that fall outside the proposed definition of water bodies. According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the rule would exempt up to 60 percent of US waters and wetlands.
The proposed rule purports to “clarify” the CWA’s regulatory scope and “provide clear and predictable jurisdictional boundaries”—but the boundaries hew to corporate profit margins and cater to factory farms leeching waste into local streams, while stopping well short of what downstream communities need to protect their drinking water.
The Obama administration drew from scientific assessments to develop nuanced rules to enhance the CWA’s original purpose of regulating “navigable” waters, by encompassing a range of broadly connected or interdependent water bodies. But under Trump’s proposed definitions, many water bodies—including many wetlands, so-called “ephemeral” streams that flow only after rain fall, and waters that lack direct surface connections to major waterways—would be off-limits for permitting rules. Jurisdiction would be limited to waters that are “connected to a traditional navigable water.”
At a media conference following the proposal’s release, Colin O’Mara of the National Wildlife Federation said Trump’s rollback of the law contradicts the EPA’s own research and “narrows the scope of the CWA beyond anything that we’ve seen since 1972,” when the CWA was passed under Nixon.
One glaring blind spot that activists point out is the lack of protections for many wetlands that are critical for regional flood control, especially at a time when coastal communities face intensifying climate change impacts. “There are no wetlands that we can plow under or pave over without having consequences for clean water,” O’Mara said.
Environmentalists also stress that the regulation’s limited focus on water bodies that flow into “hydrologically connected” and “navigable waters,” could harm sensitive species such as migratory fowl and fish. The watchdog group Public Citizen noted that Trump’s proposal would be a boon to property developers like the “Golfer in Chief” himself, by deregulating the commercial exploitation of sensitive lands.
The CWA’s central focus is not to ban pollution, but simply require polluters to undergo a permitting and regulation process. Yet even losing those limited safeguards could have devastating consequences for public health. According to Reverend Lennox Yearwood, an environmental-justice advocate with Hip Hop Caucus, the rule would result in even “greater strain on our health care system” and “impacts low-income and communities of color the most…at a time when our communities already face a series of challenges, from crumbling infrastructure, increasing impacts from climate change, and the inability to hold corporate polluters accountable for poisoning our people and our planet.”
One reason Trump’s plan seems to flout the EPA’s previous research findings is that it defers to late Justice Antonin Scalia’s peculiar definition of “water,” adopted from the Webster’s Dictionary in 2006. Advocates counter this ignores the role of water bodies in supporting the environment as a whole, including interrelated wildlife habitats and food webs.
The CWA deregulation could spill over into state and local regulations. Although some states have established additional clean-water protections, their environmental agencies depend on federal funding and national policies. In addition, the CWA provided ordinary citizens and communities with an avenue for direct legal recourse under federal law. “An important part of the Clean Water Act as it was envisioned, was that citizens could step in when their government is failing to act and bring their own enforcement,” says Kelly Hunter Foster, senior attorney at Waterkeeper Alliance. “And so if the Clean Water Act doesn’t apply, citizens are stripped of that right.”
Now the regulation faces a 60-day comment period and possibly more litigation. The court ruling that suspended Trump’s earlier effort to stifle the Obama-era rules signaled that the courts would resist such a blatant attack on the CWA’s basic structure. But in the meantime, nature won’t wait for the administration’s legal gridlock to run its course. Trump’s proposal, after all, is the product of a three-way regulatory battle of industry, environmentalists, and regulators that has already been in litigation for over a decade.
“We’re going to remain at the status quo where we’re spending a lot of money to determine what is actually protected and what is not protected,” Michael Kelly of Clean Water Action said. “And the bottom line is we’re not protecting enough water with the status quo. We are letting bodies of water remain at risk because we’re trying to please some special interests who would prefer to pave over a wetland or plow over a stream.”
For community groups who have relied on the CWA for generations to stave off pollution and hold corporations accountable for environmental harms, Trump’s convoluted, lawyerly rewrite of the law ignores its very namesake: keeping water clean. To protect waters across the country requires recognition that all water bodies are interconnected and inseparable, and the value of a healthy environment is a universal birthright—even if it’s not obvious on the surface.