It's been a busy summer for the Trump administration's assault on the environment.
The Clean Power Plan was replaced in June, eliminating Obama-era environmental regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A few weeks later, President Trump gave his first White House speech about the environment while surrounded by fossil fuel supporters and benefactors. He never uttered the words "climate change." The Endangered Species Act — credited with saving the American alligator — was gutted in August. The Clean Water Act is next on the chopping block as fall approaches.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) yesterday announced the repeal of the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, eliminating the clean-water regulations enacted by the Obama administration in 2015. The Trump administration is expected to further weaken existing environmental protections through its WOTUS replacement, making it easier for polluters to use chemicals linked to toxic algal blooms near Florida's waterways.
John Devine, director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, calls the move "serious and reckless."
"It will be easier to pollute and destroy the water we drink, fish, and swim in," Devine says. "The wetlands that filter pollutants, act as flood buffers, and serve as a home for wildlife are at risk."
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The debate boils down to one basic question: Which bodies of water should be covered by the suite of environmental protections enshrined in the Clean Water Act? The Obama administration expanded the list of protected streams and wetlands with its 2015 regulation. It also placed limits on the pollutants used near tributaries and set a fine of $50,000 per day for any business in violation of the law. The expected Trump replacement, unveiled by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in December, would protect only "certain" ditches, lakes, and ponds. Groundwater, stormwater, farm ditches, and waste treatment facilities would also no longer be considered "waters of the United States."
"This is a step in the wrong direction," says Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "It resets us to a set of regulations from 1986."
Hartl emphasizes how Thursday's change is only the first in a two-step process. First comes the repeal, then a replacement rule that further weakens clean-water protections. The wetlands that don't meet new requirements set by the Trump administration will no longer be protected.
"The storm is still coming," Hartl says.