The Clean Water Act turns 45 years old in October. It is a landmark law that has saved lakes and rivers and has been used to hold polluters accountable for decades. It contains a bold vision – making all of our waters safe for fishing and swimming, and eliminating pollution discharges. Unfortunately, after nearly 45 years, we still have work to do. Many of our rivers and lakes are still not safe.
The Trump administration wants to make this work even harder.
In February, the President Donald Trump signed an executive order initiating a scheme that would enable the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to withdraw the Clean Water Rule. Just a few weeks ago, the agencies officially proposed repealing the Clean Water Rule. This is the next step in the Trump administration's assault on common sense protections for clean water and public health.
It couldn't be more reckless. Our rivers and lakes are essential to our quality of life. The rule was signed just over two years ago by top federal officials in the Obama administration to ensure that our nation's Clean Water Act would continue its mission to protect our waterways.
A loophole created by a pair of polluter-driven lawsuits that went to the U.S. Supreme Court for years left nearly 2 million miles of streams across the country without guaranteed coverage under the Clean Water Act.
The Clean Water Rule rectified this issue and represents the biggest step forward for clean water in more than a decade. It restored protections for streams that feed the drinking water for more than 117 million Americans, including more than 11 million in New York alone.
It safeguards millions of acres of wetlands that filter pollutants, protect communities by absorbing floodwaters and provide habitat for wildlife. It is essential for America's great waterways, from the Great Lakes to the Chesapeake Bay to Puget Sound. These streams and wetlands are vital parts of our natural infrastructure relied on by small businesses like craft breweries and outdoor recreation companies. Without the Clean Water Rule, federal protections for these water bodies are up in the air and communities throughout the country will be at risk.
That risk all too often has been from developers building over our wetlands and oil companies, power plants, or meat processing plants dumping into our streams. Without the Clean Water Rule, the feds can't stop them.
In fact, according to an analysis by The New York Times, over a four-year period following the court decisions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had to drop 1,500 cases against polluters who were dumping into or otherwise harming these waters.
Americans are rightly concerned about their water. We are already seeing drinking water contaminated by algal blooms in Lake Erie, toxic chemicals in New York's East River, and a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that scientists now estimate will be the size of New Jersey this summer. The last thing we should do is weaken protections for our water.
We expect our elected officials to do more, not less to protect clean water. We expect our elected officials to prioritize public health. More than 800,000 Americans – including more than 1,000 business owners, local officials, farmers, and health professionals – supported the historic rule.
Repealing the Clean Water Rule is a shortsighted slap in the face to communities throughout the country. It will result in more polluted water and set us even further back from our goal of swimmable, fishable, drinkable water throughout the country.
Our water hasn't been this threatened in a generation. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has already initiated the repeal of the Clean Water Rule, there will be a 30 day comment period where the public will have an opportunity to stand up against this reckless action before the repeal will be finalized. Comments will likely be due in late July or early August 2017, depending on when the proposed repeal of the Clean Water Rule is published in the Federal Register.
The Trump Administration is attacking our water resources with a dangerous budget proposal that cuts funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, the reckless and rushed repeal of the Clean Water Rule, and other actions to undermine pollution controls on major dischargers.
Repealing the Clean Water Rule is a massive waste of time and taxpayer money that will put the drinking water of 117 million Americans at risk. The Trump administration should stop this terrible mistake while there's still time.
Commentary by Heather Leibowitz, Esq., director of Environment New York, a statewide advocacy organization.
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