By Patrick Crow
The Trump Administration has begun to implement promised reforms at the Environmental Protection Agency, starting with a rollback of the Obama Administration’s Waters of the U.S. rule.
President Donald Trump issued an executive order directing EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to review the controversial regulation, issued in June 2015. Implementation has been delayed by lawsuits in federal courts.
Opponents claim the rule inappropriately expanded federal jurisdiction to include water bodies that were not continuously connected with permanent water features.
When he signed the order, President Trump noted, “The Clean Water Act says that the EPA can regulate navigable waters, meaning waters that truly affect interstate commerce. But a few years ago, the EPA decided that navigable waters can mean nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer’s land, or any place else that they decide. It was a massive power grab. The EPA’s regulators are putting people out of jobs by the hundreds of thousands.”
Trump added, “It’s a horrible, horrible rule. Has sort of a nice name, but everything else is bad.”
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said, “If President Trump doesn’t think this rule is perfect, then he should tell his new EPA Administrator to roll up his sleeves and work to make it better. Instead, he has allowed his EPA to abandon critical clean water protections, to limit protected waters, and to create even more uncertainty with the stroke of his pen.”
The Environmental Working Group claimed the executive order puts the drinking water of 117 million Americans at risk. It estimated that more than one-third of the nation’s population gets at least some of its drinking water from small streams.
Separately, the Republican-controlled Congress repealed another Obama-era regulation. It used the Congressional Review Act to scrap EPA’s Stream Protection Rule, which limits the discharge of coal mining wastes into waterways. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, called that action “indefensible.”
Meanwhile, Administrator Scott Pruitt tried to soothe concerns about the agency’s direction. In a message to EPA’s 15,000 employees, he said, “I believe that we as an agency and we as a nation can be both pro-energy and jobs and pro-environment; that we don’t have to choose between the two.”
Pruitt said he wanted to change EPA’s regulatory process to follow congressional intent more closely, better respect state regulatory authority, and instill more certainty in rules.
But the agency likely will have fewer resources to achieve those goals.
Although Congress ultimately will determine EPA’s funding, the administration reportedly was considering proposing a 25 percent cut in EPA’s $8.1 billion budget and a 20 percent reduction in its workforce. More than a quarter of EPA’s budget in fiscal 2016, $2.25 billion, went to the water and wastewater state revolving funds (SRF).
In a letter to the administration, the American Water Works Association stressed that the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act still should get its authorized $45 million and the drinking water SRF $1.8 billion.
The desire of Republican congressional leaders to reduce or end some tax exemptions also was a concern.
The Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies warned that eliminating the use of tax-exempt municipal bonds could increase water and wastewater infrastructure financing costs $16 billion over a 30-year repayment period. They said communities issued nearly $38 billion of such bonds last year for water, sewer and sanitation projects.
About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for the past 15 years. Crow is now an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer.