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UPDATE 1-U.S. proposing to weaken Obama-era wetland protections

Timothy Gardner

(Adds comments from acting chief Wheeler, details of plan)

WASHINGTON, Dec 11 (Reuters) - The Trump administration on Tuesday proposed weakening protections for U.S. wetlands, an action sought by ranching and mining interests but one that will likely be held up in the courts amid lawsuits brought by environmentalists.

The proposal, by the EPA, relaxes protections in the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule that the administration of President Barack Obama expanded in 2015 to cover a wide range of wetlands.

Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said the proposal will cut costs for farmers and miners. The Obama rule required landowners to apply for permits to exercise control over their property, "a costly and time consuming process that runs counter to our Republican idea of government," Wheeler told reporters.

President Donald Trump, who has accused Obama of over-reaching on regulations, made rolling back WOTUS one of his top policy priorities. It was the latest effort to rescind rules to boost the energy and agriculture industries.

The 2015 changes defined which streams and wetlands are protected by federal clean water law from pollutants including pesticides, fertilizers and mine waste. Trump's EPA proposes relaxing the definitions of what waters should be protected.

Mark Ryan, a lawyer at Ryan & Kuehler PLLC who spent 24 years as a clean water expert and litigator at the EPA, said water systems called headwaters in high regions of the country could lose protections under the new definitions being proposed by the Trump administration.

"I think the mining is going to benefit from this because mines tend to be up in the mountains near headwater systems," Ryan said.

Miners may no longer need to apply for a permit before pushing waste, such as rubble from mountain-top coal mining in the eastern United States, into some streams.

Ephemeral streams that make up a large percentage of the total river miles in the United States could lost protections, as could intermittent streams.

The proposal will undergo a comment period before the EPA moves to finalize it. Ryan said finalization may not happen soon, if ever. "I don't think this rule is ever going to see the light of day," he said.

"This is going to be tied up in litigation for at least two years and if Trump doesn't get re-elected (in 2020), then it's dead," Ryan said. (Reporting by Timothy Gardner Editing by Paul Tait and Steve Orlofsky)