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Trump administration freezes Obama rule on water protection

February 28, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
EPA chief Scott Pruitt recently promised an aggressive rollback of regulations that had been put in place by former President Obama, and President Trump made good on Pruitt’s promise with an order to dismantle a rule about smaller bodies of water. William Brangham learns more from Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post about what today’s move means for water regulations.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Just days ago, the EPA’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt, promised an aggressive rollback of environmental regulations that had been put in place by former President Obama. The future, he said, ain’t what it used to be.

President Trump made good on his and Pruitt’s pledge today with an order to dismantle a controversial Obama rule about smaller bodies of water in the U.S.

William Brangham has the story.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It’s called the waters of the United States rule, and it has to do with which smaller bodies of water, like streams and wetlands, should be regulated and protected by the federal government under the Clean Water Act.

That question has been litigated in court battles for years.

And so for more on what today’s move is all about, I’m joined now by Juliet Eilperin, who’s been reporting on this for The Washington Post.

Juliet, welcome back to the NewsHour.

Before we get into the rollback, can you tell me what this rule is really about? And this was, as I understand it, a very big part of Obama’s environmental legacy.

JULIET EILPERIN, The Washington Post: This is a 2015 rule, which has been subject to litigation, which tries to clarify what, as you alluded to, has been really a 30-year battle over what jurisdiction the federal government has over these smaller streams, some are intermittent, some wetlands, and essentially what the federal government can tell Americans, including farmers, ranchers, homebuilders, what they can and cannot do, even when it has to do with private property, because it has implications for smaller water bodies that are crucial water supply for larger water bodies across the United States.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, is this about a rule that is trying to protect these waters from pollution? Is that the issue here?

JULIET EILPERIN: Partially, it’s pollution, but what it pertains to many often is whether they can be drained or filled in. All of those actions, which are in some ways the inevitable product of these operations that happen in various different sectors of the economy, have implications for whether that water will then flow into larger water bodies.

And so it is usually a restriction on whether you can drain something or dig up something, as opposed to, for example, just dumping in pollutants into a small water body, although, technically, it could apply to that as well.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I see.

I know that a lot of farmers and businesses and developers have said that this rule was hugely burdensome to them. Was this an issue primarily of cost to them, or confusion about what rules were covered? What was the issue?

JULIET EILPERIN: It was a combination of both the costs that they might have to incur, but also whether they were permitted to do something or not.

So, you had — one thing that’s difficult is essentially these activities were being decided on a case-by-case basis, and so you had individual operators, whether you’re talking about someone who is operating a gravel pit or trying to expand a parking lot or do something on his or her ranch — all of those folks were engaged in conversations with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers.

And sometimes the decisions didn’t go the way they wanted to. There were fines imposed on them. And so there were these long-running disputes happening across the country where the federal government was saying, that in order to protect these sources of water, they couldn’t do things or had to pay for some of the actions that they undertook.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I understand a lot of environmental groups and some sporting groups have been very critical of this rollback. What is their complaint?

JULIET EILPERIN: Their argument — and there certainly are a lot of them — is that these water bodies, though it might be inconvenient to have restrictions, were crucial habitat for everything from waterfowl, many migratory birds, aquatic species, as well as a source of drinking water for millions of Americans.

And so these groups, primarily outdoor recreation groups, as well as many environmental groups, worked extensively during the Obama administration to get them to finalize this rule, in the hopes that there would be an overarching standard that could be applied across the country that would provide more stringent protections for these streams and wetlands.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, with President Trump’s order, this doesn’t immediately undue the rule. Like, tomorrow, the rule doesn’t disappear, right?

JULIET EILPERIN: It doesn’t, although the Sixth Circuit has put a nationwide stay on the rule, so the rule has not gone into effect and will not go into effect.

And, in fact, the order that President Trump signed instructs the attorney general to ask that court to simply hold that lawsuit in abeyance, essentially freezing this rule further, while the two agencies that are charged with overseeing it look at whether they can undo it, although that again is an extensive process and will spur more lawsuits going forward.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, thanks so much.

JULIET EILPERIN: Thank you.

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