Trump administration proposes weakening U.S. waterway protections

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration proposed on Tuesday reducing federal protections for U.S. waterways, an action sought by ranching and mining interests but one that will likely be held up in the courts amid lawsuits brought by environmentalists.

The West Fork of the Millicoma River as it runs through the Elliott State Forest in southwest Oregon, U.S. on July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Eric Johnson

The Environmental Protection Agency proposal would narrow the extent of protections in the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule that President Barack Obama’s administration expanded in 2015 to cover a wide range of water bodies.

President Donald Trump, who has accused Obama of over-reaching on regulations, made rolling back WOTUS one of his top policy priorities. Tuesday’s proposal was his administration’s latest effort to rescind environmental rules to boost the energy and agriculture industries.

Andrew Wheeler, the acting EPA administrator, said the proposal would cut costs for farmers and miners.

The proposed new definition of U.S. waters “puts an end to the previous administration’s power grab,” Wheeler said after signing the proposal at EPA headquarters. Land owners should be able to determine whether water on their property should be protected “without having to hire outside professionals,” Wheeler said.

The 2015 changes defined which streams and wetlands are protected by federal clean water law from pollutants including pesticides, fertilizers and mine waste.

Mark Ryan, a lawyer at Ryan & Kuehler PLLC who spent 24 years as a clean water expert and litigator at the EPA, said water systems called headwaters in high regions of the country could lose protections under the new definitions being proposed by the Trump administration.

“I think the mining industry is going to benefit from this because mines tend to be up in the mountains near headwater systems,” Ryan said.

Miners may no longer need to apply for a permit before pushing waste, such as rubble from mountain-top coal mining in the eastern United States, into some streams.

Ephemeral streams that make up a large percentage of the total river miles in the United States could lose protections, as could what the EPA calls “isolated wetlands.”

The proposal will undergo a 60-day comment period before the EPA moves to finalize it. Wheeler said the proposal would withstand lawsuits because the EPA closely examined court cases in writing it.

Ryan said finalization may not happen soon, if ever.

“I don’t think this rule is ever going to see the light of day,” he said. “This is going to be tied up in litigation for at least two years and if Trump doesn’t get re-elected (in 2020), then it’s dead,” he added.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Paul Tait, Steve Orlofsky and Frances Kerry

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