Joe Biden’s administration will rescind and replace a Donald Trump-era rule that shrank the number of US waters under federal protection, as officials point to “significant environmental degradation” and threats to the nation’s wetlands and waterways under the previous administration.
The Environmental Protection Agency will formally repeal the 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule following observed “destructive impacts to critical water bodies” and “significant environmental degradation” in its wake, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement on Wednesday.
Under the Trump administration, following calls from oil industries and developers, the rule rolled back federal pollution oversight implemented under Barack Obama, who sought to boost federal authority to combat development that could harm the nation’s waterways, including those that feed into larger bodies protected by the Clean Water Act.
By redefining what constitutes the “waters of the United States,” the Trump administration excluded millions of acres of wetlands and hundreds of miles of streams – including some drinking water reservoirs – from Clean Water Act protections, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The rule also redefined lakes used as cooling waters for industrial plants as “waste treatment systems”, now stripped of pollution protections.
The law centre sued the EPA in US District Court over the Trump-era rule.
Following a review, the EPA determined that the rule “is significantly reducing clean water protections.”
Officials said the lack of protections significantly impacted arid states like New Mexico and Arizona, where “nearly every one” of more than 1,500 streams observed in its report were unprotected.
The EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers also discovered that the Trump administration oversaw 333 projects that would have previously required approvals under the Clean Water Act.
Protections were removed for roughly 400 acres of wetlands in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp for construction of a mine, and another 200 acres of critical wetlands that absorb floodwaters were jeopardised for a development near South Carolina’s Savannah National Wildlife Refuge.
Jaime Pinkham, acting assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works, said the Trump rule led to a 25 per cent reduction in “determinations of waters that would otherwise be afforded protection.”
The agencies will now begin drafting new and more expansive rules to define waterways under federal protections.
Southern Environmental Law Center urged the Biden administration to “immediately” reverse the rule.
“No administration can allow the interests of industrial polluters to trump the sole objective of the Clean Water Act: to restore and maintain the integrity of our nation’s waters,” said Kelly Moser, senior attorney and leader of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Clean Water Defense Initiative.
“The Biden administration must act quickly to restore clean water protections because the current rule lets developers, industry, or anyone else pollute, fill, or pave over these waters without federal permit,” she said in a statement.
“The administration must make this a priority, and we will hold their feet to the fire,” she said.