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EPA Blocks Clean Water Rule to Replace With 'Industry-Friendly' Alternative

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Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt. Official White House Photo by Mitchell Resnick

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put a two-year suspension on the Clean Water Rule, an Obama-era policy defining which waters can be protected against pollution and destruction under federal law.

Last year, President Trump declared the 2015 law, also known as Waters of the United States (WOTUS), "a horrible, horrible rule," tasking EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to replace it with a looser and more "industry-friendly" definition, the New York Times reported.


WOTUS was supposed to take effect in the coming weeks after the Supreme Court decided last month that cases regarding the matter should be heard by district courts. However, Pruitt's action on Wednesday halted the rule from implementation.

"Today, EPA is taking action to reduce confusion and provide certainty to America's farmers and ranchers," Pruitt said. "The 2015 WOTUS rule developed by the Obama administration will not be applicable for the next two years, while we work through the process of providing long-term regulatory certainty across all 50 states about what waters are subject to federal regulation."

The 2015 rule protected large water bodies like lakes and rivers but also listed smaller waterways such as streams, ponds and wetlands for federal protection.

The EPA boss is now crafting its own Trump administration version, which according to the New York Times, "is expected to include much looser regulatory requirements on how farmers, ranchers and real estate developers must safeguard the streams and tributaries that flow through their property and into larger bodies of water."

The decision to withdraw and replace WOTUS was advocated by industry groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Petroleum Institute, as well as Republican politicians and farmers, ranchers and real estate developers who viewed the rule as an infringement on property rights.

"The Obama administration's outrageous Waters of the United States rule would have put backyard ponds, puddles, and farm fields under Washington's control," said Senator John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "Today's action will give Wyoming's ranchers, farmers, small businesses, and communities clarity."

But environmental groups worry that the move will allow uncontrolled pollution and destruction of our nation's rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands.

"Without the Clean Water Rule's critical protections, innumerable small streams and wetlands that are essential for drinking water supplies, flood protection, and fish and wildlife habitat will be vulnerable to unregulated pollution, dredging and filling, said Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers.


"Healthy rivers and streams are vital to our communities and economy, and the health of millions of Americans. President Trump and EPA Administrator Pruitt want to throw away carefully crafted safeguards that were based on strong economic arguments, sound science and broad public support," Irvin said. "We won't let that go unchallenged."

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced Thursday he will lead a multi-state lawsuit against the Trump administration for suspending the Clean Water Rule.

He tweeted that the Trump administration's suspension of the Clean Water Rule was "reckless and illegal."

"The Clean Water Rule is a common sense application of the law and the best science to protect our waters," Schneiderman said. "The Trump Administration's suspension of these vital protections is reckless and illegal. That is why I will lead a multi-state coalition that will sue to block this rollback in court."

The Hill reported that the Natural Resources Defense Council has also pledged to sue. The Sierra Club and Earthjustice may also file suit.

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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