by:  Paul J Sniadecki, MLSA Board Director

September 12, 2019, marked the repeal of one of the most sweeping environmental rules — a set of pollution protections for small streams and wetlands that had riled up opposition from coal miners, home developers, farmers and oil and gas drillers.

The action creates instant doubts about the legal status of myriad seasonal or isolated wetlands and thousands of miles of waterways, including vast swaths of the arid West. And it clears the way for the Environmental Protection Agency to finish a follow-up regulation in the coming months that could leave most of the nation’s wetlands without any federal safeguards.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed the repeal at the D.C. headquarters of the National Association of Manufacturers, one of the industry groups that had opposed the Waters of the U.S. rule (WOTUS). That 2015 regulation, also known as the Clean Water Rule, had cemented federal protections for head water streams, Western rivers and nearby wetlands, in an effort to resolve questions raised by two muddled Supreme Court decisions.

Environmental groups and state attorneys general vowed to challenge the rollback, arguing that it jeopardizes drinking water supplies for 117 million Americans. States can always implement their own water rules that are more stringent than federal regulations, but that can also cause a patchwork of non-aligned regulations.

The rule rollback is unlikely to create major changes on the ground immediately because courts have put the WOTUS rules on hold in more than half the states  Nonetheless, the move represents a big win for industry groups that say that the Clean Water Act permitting process is often one of the most onerous aspects of their projects. Permits to fill in streams and wetlands can require developers to shrink or change the footprint of a project and pay to counteract the damage they do to waterways.

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