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Impact Water

It’s Business as Usual in Trump’s War on Clean Water

The EPA is about to be obliterated. You should be freaking out.

by Michelle Betters
Apr 28 2017, 5:00pm

Photo via Flickr user Chris Combe.

In the first 100 days of his presidency, Donald Trump proposed drastic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, repealed regulations for coal mining companies, and signed off on the Dakota Access Pipeline. Though it might seem like the president is waging a new war on clean water, his directives actually harken back to what The Nation's Robert Weissman once called the GOP's "deregulation obsession."

In February, for example, Trump signed an executive order instructing the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to roll back President Obama's 2015 expansion of the Clean Water Act. Passed in 1972 with bipartisan support, this controversial--and confusing--set of regulations protects "the waters of the United States" from pollution. The former president's rule, which is still stuck in court, would clarify which waters are under federal jurisdiction and extend protection to seasonal or intermittent waterways. Most importantly, it would also safeguard drinking water for 117 million people.

When Obama's Clean Water Rule was announced in May of 2015, he described it as "another step towards protecting the waters that belong to all of us," and environmentalists agreed. Republican leadership, on the other hand, decried the rule as "executive overreach," arguing it would impact both big agriculture and independent farmers that rely on seasonal wetlands for irrigation. Former House Speaker John A. Boehner called the move "tyrannical."

Trump has since echoed these criticisms, calling the rule a "massive power grab,"and his executive order advises agency administrators to look toward the late Antonin Scalia for a solution. In his response to Rapanos v. United, a 2006 case concerning a mall developer who faced felony charges after filling a wetland up with sand, the then-Supreme Court Justice argued that the Clean Water Act should have a much narrower scope. It applied, he argued, to "only relatively permanent, standing or flowing bodies of water."

Scalia then argued that the federal government should not regulate "channels through which water occasionally or intermittently flows," even if they flow into sources of drinking water.

According to a study published in 2014, Republicans first turned against regulating the environment en masse in 1991--right around the time the Soviet Union fell, Bill Clinton was elected, and "global environmentalism" rose in popularity. Up until that point, researchers found the issue apparently wasn't split along political party lines. By analyzing responses to the annual General Social Survey between 1972 and 2012, researchers tracked changes in how members of each party responded to questions about government spending on the environment.

While the study doesn't settle on any reasons as to why environmental regulation is so polarizing, the issue has clearly galvanized Republican legislators. In other words, Trump's assault against regulation is not unique for GOP lawmakers. After they reclaimed control of the House in 2010, more than 150 votes were reportedly held against environmental protections in eleven months.

Before he was appointed administrator of the EPA, then-Congressman Scott Pruitt filed multiple lawsuits against the agency's clean water regulations, including the Clean Water Rule. More recently, Pruitt gave a speech at a Pennsylvania coal mine and promised to rein in "regulatory overreach" in favor of "economic growth."

As Alana Semuels recently wrote for The Atlantic, the state of North Carolina's government has attempted the same kind of "regulatory rollback" on burning coal and disposing the ash, which has left a number of residents with contaminated water. Pat McCrory, the current governor and former employee of a coal-burning power plant company, has pushed back against regulations since he was elected in 2012. Semuels notes that McCrory also reduced the number of staff at agencies "tasked with protecting the environment."

Luckily, replacing Obama's federal water rule won't be quick or easy. Before Trump obliterates the Clean Water Act, his administration will have to review the many public hearings, judicial reviews, and scientific studies carried out by their predecessors. "It has to be justified by the law and the evidence available," explained Jon Devine, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Moreover, in the public process that the agencies must follow, citizen groups will resist the Trump administration's attack on these safeguards."

Though Trump's executive order is just a first step in the long process of rulemaking, his devastatingly swift attacks on environmental protection don't bode well for the future of clean water, especially in the context of Republican's longheld fixation one deregulation. The president's "America First" agenda, it seems, really just means industry first.

On April 29, the 100th day of Trump's presidency, thousands of people plan to gather in Washington DC for the fourth annual People's Climate March. Over 250 sister marches are being planned across the country in an effort to address the climate crisis. In a press release for the march, Angela Adrar of the Climate Justice Alliance explained, "After 100 days of this administration, it's our time to show our resilience, to show that we're still here." 

For more information on getting involved, check out the People's Climate Movement website.