By Annie Sneed
Pres. Donald Trump insists he wants clean water. In a speech to Congress last week, he vowed to “promote clean air and clean water.” And in an interview with The New York Times last November, he said, “Clean water, crystal clean water is vitally important.” Ironically, though, the president just signed an executive order that could pollute many Americans’ drinking water sources.
On February 28, Trump ordered a review of the Clean Water Rule, with the aim of rolling it back. Pres. Barack Obama finalized the Clean Water Rule in June 2015 to clear up confusion over which water bodies the federal government can regulate under the 1972 Clean Water Act, the main federal law for water pollution. Now, legal experts say, Trump appears to want to restrict what types of waters are regulated, much more so than the Clean Water Rule and the regulations before it. Specifically, his executive order—if and when it leads to a final rule—would likely cut protections for many wetlands and smaller streams that help keep U.S. waters clean. All of this could result in dirtier drinking water supplies for millions of Americans. “Almost certainly, some water bodies will face increased pollution under a narrower federal Clean Water Rule,” Daniel Esty, professor of environmental law and policy at Yale Law School, wrote to Scientific American. “It would leave some critical water resources less protected.” Of course, federal agencies will first need to go through a lengthy rule-making process before Trump’s directive becomes a final rule.
The Clean Water Act protects major water bodies like large streams, rivers, bays and other coastal waters, along with streams and wetlands that flow into them from being destroyed or polluted—or, at least, not polluted without federal oversight. It covers a large range of pollutants, including sewage, garbage, biological and radioactive materials, and industrial and agricultural waste. The 2015 Clean Water Rule clarified that federal agencies could also regulate certain types of smaller or more isolated waters, like seasonal streams and wetlands near them, which have a less obvious connection to larger waters. Previously, oversight for those waters was decided on a case by case basis, although protection was often granted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or Army Corps of Engineers. The 2015 rule never really went into effect, however, because a federal court stopped its implementation until judges decide a lawsuit against it, which is still in progress.
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