HUNTINGTON - The Trump administration will roll back an Obama-era water rule, reducing the number of waterways across the country that would be protected by federal law, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday.
Speaking at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Huntington District office, Region 3 Administrator Cosmo Servidio said the EPA would repeal the "Waters of the United States" rule - a 2015 rule that had put limits on polluting chemicals near waterways - and propose its own rule in a matter of months.
Servidio promised repealing the rule would clear up "regulatory uncertainty" and put power back in the hands of states - a phrase that's accompanied many of the Trump administration's regulatory rollbacks. Trump had previously asked his Department of the Army and EPA to review the rule, which had taken effect in 22 states and Washington, D.C. West Virginia did not implement the rule.
Servidio said the decision would specifically help businesses and farmers.
"This action represents our national interest to ensure that our nation's controllable waters are kept free from pollution, while promoting economic growth," Servidio said, adding this would improve lives and the environment. He couldn't immediately provide data on how many streams and rivers would be affected and how water quality might be improved.
"I couldn't give you that exact number about how many streams we have, but I know the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is doing a great job as they regulate those streams in partnership with us," he said.
A West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection spokesman did not answer questions about the impact on the state's waters, and said the agency was "currently evaluating the EPA's decision."
The announcement was met with sharp criticism from groups that said the rollback would basically allow polluters to discharge more.
"Clean water is a basic right of every American," said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, which does work in West Virginia. "To be effective, the Clean Water Act must be able to control pollution at its source. Unfortunately today's action by the EPA places the health of 60% of the stream miles and the drinking water of one in three Americans at risk."
The decision moves the state backward, not forward, said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. With the rule repealed, many streams won't be protected by basic pollution control programs.
"This move blatantly ignores the science around the connectivity of water. It matters a lot because our terrain lends toward a complex network of streams that feed our bigger rivers," Rosser said. "It's worrisome considering the quality of our drinking water supplies in West Virginia rely on the feeder streams targeted by this repeal."
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler made his own announcement in Washington, D.C. Servidio said regional administrators were encouraged to make the announcement in their regions.
"We recognize that it can be difficult to determine, in a state like West Virginia with many small streams and wet areas, what is a 'water of the United States' and what is a water of the state. We believe the new federal rule draws a principled distinction between two. Please remember that the streams, rivers and wetlands that are not covered by the federal regulation are nonetheless protected under state law and regulation," said Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association.
The National Mining Association praised the decision, echoing Servidio's statement that the Obama-era rule demonstrated federal overreach.
"The 2015 rule unlawfully expanded the scope of federal Clean Water Act jurisdiction and, contrary to its intended purpose, added significant confusion to the question of which waters are federally regulated and which are protected by the states," National Mining Association President and CEO Hal Quinn said in a prepared statement.
Other groups promised to challenge the decision in court.
"The Trump administration's wild-eyed attempts to reward polluters, however, knows no bounds, so it is repealing these important protections without regard for the law or sound science," Jon Devine, director of federal water policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement Thursday morning.