Previous administration expanded oversight to protect water quality from industrial pollution; Trump administration promised to correct overreach.
President Trump’s administration has rescinded an Obama-era policy that expanded federal oversight and the threat of steep fines for polluting the country’s smaller waterways, furthering his deregulatory efforts in the 14 months that remain before the next election.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Thursday signed a final rule that limits the scope of federal clean-water regulations in an effort to clear up confusion for landowners whose property sits near water sources that feed into the country’s network of major rivers.
The Obama administration in 2015 had expanded federal oversight upstream, it said, to better protect wildlife and the country’s drinking-water supply from industrial runoff and pollution. Mr. Wheeler called that expansion an overreach, saying it grew to cover dry land in some cases.
Farmers, property developers, chemical manufacturers and oil-and-gas producers—some of whom are key voter groups for the 2020 election—have voiced opposition to it, with many saying it overreached by intruding on property owners’ rights.
Court battles following the Obama-era rule have led to fractured rules across the country. Amid the legal challenges, the regulation is in place only in 22 states, though the Trump administration’s decision could spark its own series of court fights.
The rule finalized on Thursday restores regulatory text that existed before the 2015 rule. Property that is no longer covered by the 1972 Clean Water Act remains protected by state rules. Major waterways, such as most rivers and lakes, were already under protection of the Clean Water Act and still will be after the rollback.
“Our revised and more precise definition will mean that farmers, property owners and businesses will spend less time and money determining whether they need a federal permit,” Mr. Wheeler said.
Critics of the reversal on Thursday warned that it will jeopardize citizens’ health and generate environmental cleanup costs paid for by taxpayers. Rep. Grace Napolitano (D., Calif.), the chairwoman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment that oversees the EPA Clean Water Act, called the move the “latest evidence of the president’s utter disregard and contempt for science.”
“Winners are corporations and polluters. Losers are families, farmers, and taxpayers,” she said in a statement.
President Trump has long promised to roll back environmental regulations he considers too restrictive. At a press conference on Thursday, Mr. Wheeler said the 2015 rule “was at the top of the list” of regulations that the president aimed to eliminate. Soon after his election, President Trump directed EPA officials to work on restoring earlier rules.
The Clean Water Act’s reach has expanded over time, including under the 2015 rule, to smaller ponds, tributaries and streams that flow only after heavy rains, Mr. Wheeler said. The expansion has meant that more landowners need to apply for permits or face steep fines.
“As the scope expands, so too does Washington’s power over private property,” Mr. Wheeler said on Thursday.
Office of Management and Budget acting Director Russ Vought said the move is part of the administration’s “effort to remove regulations that put absurd government standards on the American people.”
In recent weeks the administration has been strongly considering isolating a challenge to California authority from the rest of its new vehicle-efficiency rules. In June, EPA finalized climate rules for power plants without revising its standards for certain reviews of those plants—changes it once considered a linchpin of the policy but then promised would have to come later.
The Obama revisions gave the federal government oversight of some ditches and shallow wetlands that could carry pollution downstream, which the Obama administration estimated would improve drinking water for more than 100 million Americans.
But since that rule’s introduction, critics said it intruded on property owners’ rights and impeded economic growth.
National Association of Home Builders Chief Legal Officer James Rizzo said Thursday that the eased regulations come at an important time when the country faces a shortage of affordable housing. Roughly 25% of every dollar spent on a new U.S. home accounts for regulatory-compliance costs, he said.
“The old water rule, which sought to regulate dry land, was confusing and counterproductive,” said Jay Timmons, leader of the National Association of Manufacturers, which has been a major participant in industry’s legal challenges.