Trump administration narrows clean water protections, NC wetlands likely to suffer

A restored stream in Forest Hills Park in Durham, conducted under the state’s mitigation program. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

In case you missed it on Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a new rule that environmentalists say will gut long-established clean water protections.

Announced at a national home builders show in Las Vegas, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the Navigable Waters Protection Rule delivers on President Trump’s promise of a revised definition for “waters of the United States” and results in economic growth.

But as Policy Watch’s Lisa Sorg first reported last September, this rule change could hold dire consequences for North Carolina:

In North Carolina, wetlands cover 5.7 million acres of land, about 17 percent of the state. Most of the wetlands are in eastern North Carolina, where they provide crucial flood protection and wildlife habitat. In addition, 51,000 miles of streams — equivalent to two trips around the equator — are at risk from the WOTUS rollback. Some parts of the state, Gisler said, could lose protections for 50 percent of their streams.

Even with Clean Water Act protections, North Carolina’s waters are still polluted: from coal ash pits, chemicals, hog waste, raw sewage — 85 million gallons of which spilled into the state’s waterways last year. Repealing the federal protections would likely despoil the water quality we do have.

“We could see dramatic increases in number of streams plowed over, developed, paved,” if the repeal withstands legal challenges, said Geoff Gisler, attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “There’s going to be a visible and noticeable difference in the quality of our waters.”

And while the change is clearly intended to benefit developers and industry, the Southern Environmental Law Center notes:

…. the overwhelming majority of the 626,075 public comments EPA received weighed in against the proposed rule. The list of Americans from across the country that the rule drew criticism or concern from is long: floodplain and wetland managers, state wildlife agencies and international councils, state environmental agencies, associations representing family commercial fishing businesses, several fly-fishing-related businesses, river guides and paddling outfitters, outdoor apparel company Patagonia, outdoor recreational enthusiasts represented by several organizations, 59 craft breweries, 12 scientific societies that represent more than 200,000 scientists, numerous associations representing public and children’s health advocates, cities and counties, small and family farmers, environmental law professors, faith organizations, and conservation organizations too numerous to count.

So what’s next? According to Politico, you can expect a deluge of new lawsuits:

Legal experts say the Trump rule is likely to be placed on hold by federal courts in at least some states, if not nationwide, as the litigation works its way through the courts. In the meantime. developers and other industries will have to decide how much of a risk they’re willing to take.

For more, read Sorg’s full story: How a Trump attack on the federal “Waters of the United States” rule imperils the waters of North Carolina.

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