The Trump administration is about to propose a change to clean water regulations that will roll back protection for a number of wetlands and streams. Environmentalists worry the changes will harm North Carolina waterways, in part because the General Assembly has prohibited state regulators from compensating for the federal cuts. Those changes could become law this year, so I started to ask about the effect on our water.
You may not remember the bad old days before there was a lot of environmental legislation, but reports of fish kills and waterborne DDT led the nightly news, and an Ohio river even caught fire. So Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, which required the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate pollutant discharges into the “waters of the United States.” It left it to the EPA to define that term, and battles over the definition have continued ever since.
Here’s why the term “waters of the United States” is so important. If a business wants to pollute a federally protected wetland, it has to file for a permit and minimize the damage. If that wetland isn’t a federally regulated water, the business can avoid that cost. Under the definition that’s existed for many years, some decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, creating uncertainty and additional costs.
The Obama administration came up with a definition which eliminated that uncertainty, but it also increased the amount of water which would be regulated. Business said that amounted to a massive land grab, and a federal court temporarily halted enforcement of the rule in a number of states, including North Carolina.
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A complete repeal of the Obama rule was a rallying cry for candidate Donald Trump. In fact, when it announced its new, proposed definition, Trump’s EPA issued an unusually political press release lauding the president for fulfilling his campaign promise. The Trump definition is a lot narrower than the definition that’s been used for decades. It eliminates federal protection for “ephemeral” streams which flow only after it rains, and for wetlands that are isolated from other waters. The EPA also solicited proposals for further cuts, indicating it intends to further limit the reach of the Clean Water Act.
What’s the impact of those cuts? The EPA says it lacks the data to make a definitive determination, but U.S. Geological Survey documents show more than half of the nation’s wetlands and 18 percent of all streams will lose federal protection. That’s important because wetlands provide a lot of natural water filtration and flood control. The EPA even acknowledges that draining and filling wetlands has made floods more expensive.
The administration downplays the effect of the rule changes, saying some states will expand their oversight to compensate for the federal cuts. But it admits there will be a “significant impact” on water quality in states like South Carolina, where the Clean Water Act has required businesses to mitigate a lot of their pollution, but where the state government probably won’t step in.
According to the administration, we shouldn’t worry about North Carolina’s water because it believes the state will fill in for federal cuts. That’s an interesting assumption, since the General Assembly has already passed laws to prevent that very thing.
Geoffrey Gisler of the Southern Environmental Law Center commissioned a study on the effect of the changed definition at eight large development sites in Virginia and the Carolinas. In a draft I saw, he found more than 70 percent of the wetlands would no longer be protected. John Dorney, a long-time wetlands scientist who worked on the study, says the findings suggest a significant decline in water quality and flood control.
The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposed rule once it’s published and before the EPA writes its final rule. So North Carolinians have a few months to ask some hard questions.