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  • Jen Isabel Friend

Bad News for WOTUS - EPA Rollbacks & The Dirty Water Rule

You’ve heard me mention before that water needs us now more than ever, and it’s becoming truer every day.

On Jan. 23 of this year, Trump unveiled his administration’s Dirty Water Rule. It’s basically the antithesis of the Clean Water Act. In one fell swoop, it declared that many of the streams, lakes, bays, lagoons, wetlands, headwaters, and more all across the US no longer count as “waters of the United States,” which means that the federal protections under the Clean Water Act will no longer apply to them, and polluters can dump toxic byproducts into those waters. Keep watching to find out what this means and what you can do about it! I’m Isabel, I’m a water advocate and educator, and today I want to remind you that we all live downstream from somewhere, and there is no one in the country whom these EPA rollbacks won’t affect on some level, even if they don’t realize it. With this new Dirty Water Rule, we can no longer count on the EPA to protect water flowing into our neighborhoods and communities. Seems obvious, but let me reiterate: Everyone and everything needs clean water. Without clean water, humans get sick. Plants, animals, aquatic life, and the entire food web need clean water to survive.

So the administration repealed what’s called the "Clean Water Rule" and is now attempting to undo the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act. Because water policy can start to feel like a whirlpool at times, this video is a quick breakdown of what’s being proposed and what’s being lost.

Let’s start with… How Is the System Supposed to Work, Anyway?

Well let’s say a company wants to mine coal or heavy metals, or an energy company wants to drill oil and gas, or a developer wants to pave over wetlands for a shopping mall. First, they have to get a federal permit. The EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers review plans and decide whether to give them a green light, and set down requirements along the way to minimize water pollution. The 1972 Clean Water Act is what guides this whole process, spelling out the minimum requirements to protect water quality in all “Waters of the United States” or WOTUS, if you like. 

So basically the “Dirty Water Rule” cuts a ton of waterbodies out of the protections in the Clean Water Act by saying that they aren’t WOTUS. 

So How many people would this affect?

Well The Clean Water Rule protected drinking water sources for more than 117 million Americans — over a third of the country. If headwaters of major rivers are no longer protected from industrial pollution, downstream water quality will obviously suffer. All waters are one, and all waterways are connected through the hydrological cycle.

It affects nearly one in every five streams; more than half of all wetlands; and tons of other lakes, ponds and other waters. What’s really messed up is that it guts protections for wetlands, which are the kidneys of the hydrological cycle, they naturally filter out industrial pollution, store floodwaters, and act as buffers in coastal areas susceptible to hurricanes. 

OK so If you’ve Made it This Far, you’re ready for the Scary Fine Print...

Coinciding with the Dirty Water Rule is an alphabet soup of other under-the-radar policy changes that will even further weaken the vital protections built into the Clean Water Act. You can find a brief rundown of all of those in the latest blog post over on my website. Read up and educate yourself on what’s happening with our waters. If you think this doesn’t affect you, think again. You are made of water, and that water was once in the watershed. The waters outside us are not separate from the waters within us. The waters outside us become the waters within us. And when we are done with these aquatic bodies, their water returns again to the hydrological cycle. We live very disconnected lives these days in the modern era. But, whether we realize it or not, we are all intrinsically interconnected to the water cycle. We are all an integral part of our watershed, though we might not even know its name or where its streams and springs are. Let’s expand our awareness of our interconnectivity with our ecosystem. As Loren Eiseley wrote, "Human beings are a way that water has of going about beyond the reach of rivers.” So what affects the rivers, affects you. We must become engaged, not only for our own sake but for the sake of life itself. Because we are not here to protect water. We are water, protecting herself. 

It’s understandable if you feel queasy after hearing about the Dirty Water Rule, not to mention the new Toxic Water Rule, the Sewage Blending Rule, and all of the other nefarious changes spearheaded by Trump’s so-called Environmental Protection Agency. The most recent development is that now it is working to roll back the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) regulation, in other words so it will be okay for companies to dump mercury, lead, arsenic and other things into waterways.

But there are ways to weigh in and help oppose these rule changes! Don’t let despair trick you into inefficacy. Let it inspire you into action. Let it this awaken the warrior within you so you can make a difference with the time in your days and the life in your body of water.

  • EPA Ties Its Own Hands: One rule change undermines a power granted to EPA under the Clean Water Act, called “404(c) authority.” 404(c) authority sets things up so that if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers green-lights a permit that has an “adverse/unacceptable effect” on the environmental waterway, the EPA can step in to cancel it. This override power was used by EPA recently to halt a permit for Alaska’s highly controversial Pebble Mine, a massive copper and gold mine that would irreversibly harm Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed — the life source of one of most important salmon fisheries in the entire world. The proposed rule change limits EPA’s 404(c) authority to a tiny window of time, making it much harder for the agency to ever step in and make things right if the Corps approves a senseless proposal like Pebble Mine again.

  • EPA Ties States’ and Tribes’ Hands: Another proposed rule change messes around with something known as “Section 401 certification.” This gives states and tribes the power, under the Clean Water Act, to step in and block federal permits when they don’t pass the smell test for the state’s, or tribe’s, own water-quality standards. Forget “state’s rights” values; this proposal severely restrict states’ ability to step in and protect their own waterways.

  • More Mercury, More Problems: Another proposal, dubbed the “Toxic Water Rule,” would weaken pollution controls for coal-fired power plants. Power plants are by far the largest contributors of toxic pollution into our waters, dumping a toxic stew of mercury, arsenic, lead, and selenium into waterways, even though there are affordable solutions to clean up these discharges before they reach our surface waters. Earthjustice has long been involved in this issue.

  • Skip This Part if You’re Eating: Yet another anticipated Clean Water Act attack concerns a regulation with a viscerally gross title: the “Sewage Blending Rule.” This would make it easier for wastewater treatment plants to release raw sewage blended with treated wastewater into waterways, if their treatment systems get overwhelmed by major “wet weather” events. (In related news, the climate crisis will bring more of these events.)

Another Crappy Loophole: Finally, the Trump administration has adopted a radical new interpretation of some facets of the Clean Water Act, creating a water pollution loophole. The Trump administration’s EPA issued guidance that pollution discharges into protected waters via groundwater are categorically excluded from Clean Water Act regulation. In other words, polluters can get away with sullying clean water by indirectly disposing of their waste through groundwater. Earthjustice went to the U.S. Supreme Court in November 2019 on a case related to this very issue. (See our online explainer: The Clean Water Case of the Century.)

What Can I Do to Stop This?

It’s understandable if you feel queasy after reading about the Dirty Water Rule, the Toxic Water Rule, the Sewage Blending Rule, and all of the other nefarious changes spearheaded by Trump’s so-called Environmental Protection Agency. But there are ways to weigh in and help oppose these rule changes! One thing you can do is reach out to your elected officials and tell them to stand up against Trump’s attacks on the Clean Water Act. And, look out for action alerts from Earthjustice and other organizations to join the opposition as these changes are formally proposed

To learn more:

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