Photo: USDA / Flickr
On June 27th, the Environmental Protection Agency rescinded a 2015 Obama regulation expanding federal control of some waters on private land. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said the intent was to return control to states, farmers and businesses. This is an important departure from the original intent and definition of “waters of the U.S.;” that had already been clearly defined and accepted through litigation for decades.
EPA’s original definition included seasonal waters, runoff, wetlands and even ponds. The area covered by water was less significant than the movement of the water above and below the surface. Admittedly, it was a liberal interpretation. It had even been successfully described as a matchstick floating in a water filled cow print. It wasn’t the size that mattered but the function as a transport mechanism. A pond or puddle formed after rain could be interpreted as “navigable waters” if it could transport a chemical or material from its original location.
Wetlands and Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs) were one of the reasons for the broad interpretation. After a flood or rain, CAFOs are significant sources of run-off contamination to streams and rivers. Their nutrients can cause “blooms” of algae that deplete the oxygen and kill organisms and fish living in the water. Wetlands are a natural water purification system. EPA’s stance allowed oversight of CAFOs and other transitory sources from releasing pollutants. It also protected a natural purification system that treats and removes pollutants.
Private land owners, businesses, developers and farmers objected. They lobbied strongly that the 2015 rule was an EPA “land grab” by extreme left wing environmentalists.
Administrator Pruitt said, “This is a step in the two-step process to redefine ‘waters of the U.S.’ and we are committed to moving through this re-evaluation to quickly provide regulatory certainty, in a way that is thoughtful, transparent and collaborative with other agencies and the public.” In common language, the economic benefit to a few “trumps” the benefit to the many.
In this case “draining the swamp” is not a good thing. The commercial development of wetlands may temporarily benefit development but in the long run, it costs the public more. Wetlands are virtually free and highly effective water treatment systems. Industrial wastewater treatment facilities are extremely expensive. While they clean water of some toxins and other pollutants, they also remove the vital species diversity that replenishes the soil.
There is no “one size fits all” solution to regulating water pollution. Geography, soil types, methods of water transport, pollutant type, short term and long term cost must all be considered on a case-by-case basis. That is why EPA must be given the latitude to define “navigable waters” and “waters of the U.S.” EPA must look at the nation as a whole, and natural systems as interactive across the entire socio-economic and environmental spectrum.
The Trump Administration, and Scott Pruitt specifically, are wrong to separate economic costs to a minority of private interests from the national interests of the entire country.
EPA was intended to be the link between the environment and the socio-economic health of the nation. For decades, international bodies and economists have defined sustainable development as having three legs or pillars. The social, environmental and economic factors are interdependent and inseparable for policy makers. The Trump Administration and Administrator Pruitt are following a narrow policy that removes the environment leg from the sustainable development stool.
If this and other tools of the EPA are defunded or removed, the agency will no longer be able to fulfill its mission to “protect health and the environment.” In the first months of the Trump Administration, restrictions on coal companies were lifted, allowing them to discharge their waste into streams and rivers. That was a cost benefit to the coal companies but a major threat and expense to those living downstream. Without EPA oversight and regulatory control, the U.S. could return to rivers that catch fire like the Cuyahoga and Allegheny in the 1960s.
When the next Flint, Michigan disaster takes place, don’t be surprised if President Trump and EPA Administrator Pruitt blame the defunded and hogtied EPA for failing its mission.
W. Douglas Smith is an environmental scientist, environmental diplomat, explorer, educator and a retired Senior Compliance Investigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked for 36 years.