Mixed Reviews As EPA Releases Final Clean Water Rules

May 29, 2015

Credit Pixabay/Public Domain

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its finalized Clean Water Rule on Wednesday, which it says will enhance stream and wetlands protection from pollution and degradation. As WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley reports, the decision comes after months of fierce debate.

The Clean Water rule, according to the EPA, more precisely defines waters that are protected under the Clean Water Act, including waters next to rivers and lakes and their tributaries due to their downstream impacts.
Speaking this week on a conference call, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy says no new permits are being created and all previous exemptions and exclusions have been maintained.   “The rule will make it easier to identify protected waters and will make those protections consistent with the law and the latest peer reviewed science.”

Army Corps of Engineers Assistant Secretary of Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy says the rule is an important reminder that the CWA makes it illegal to pollute or destroy covered water without a permit.  “If you’re not doing either of those things you do not need a permit, no matter the waters’ status.  But for activities that do require a permit we’ve had to operate under a lot of confusion since the SWANCC and Rapanos  Supreme Court decisions.”

National Sierra Club President Aaron Mair:  “What it does is that it controls discharges from farms and small businesses that heretofore were not regulated and more importantly protects waterways and feeder streams and headwater sources that may affect potential public water supplies and other natural resources.”

National Wildlife Federation Senior Counsel Jim Murphy says the new clean water rules are extremely important both nationally and in the Lake Champlain basin region.  “It will certainly ensure that federal Clean Water Act protections exist for the entire tributary system of the lake and many of the valuable wetlands that both provide wildlife habitat and also insure that the water is clean and that the crown jewel of Lake Champlain is protected.”

The Farm Bureau has been strongly opposed to the proposed rules because of potential regulatory overreach on lands that are typically dry. New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton expects the final rule will negatively impact all landowners.  “It’s going to create a bureaucratic nightmare for a lot of landowners across the states of New York and Vermont.  It’s going to require more red tape.  A lot of the proponents of the rule have said that this is just big ag not wanting to be regulated.  This is not going to just affect farmers.  This is going to affect everybody who pays taxes to municipalities that have roadside ditches, that have parks that have land forms that they own that have to be maintained, because the permits that I’m going to have to purchase as a farmer to the things that I used to do – the towns, the counties, the villages, they’re going to have to pay for the same permits.”
There has been harsh criticism of the proposed rule and concerns particularly in the agriculture sector.  Administrator McCarthy was defensive and adamant that the new rule does not create any new permitting requirements for farmers.  “The rule does not add any new requirements for agriculture. Farmers, ranchers and foresters are all America’s original conservationists. Agriculture activities like plowing, harvesting and moving livestock across a stream have long been exempt from federal clean water regulations and this rule will not change that.”  

But the Farm Bureau’s President Norton is dubious.   “That’s a lot of happy talk.  When the rule was sent out for comment they said the same thing. But when you really delve down into the rule and what’s going to be falling under their jurisdiction you found that that wasn’t exactly true. I’ll hold judgment until we get through all 300 some pages. But I would suggest to you that was probably a lot of happy talk from the administration and the administrator trying to put a spin on a very unpopular rule.”

The agency received more than a million comments prior to releasing the final rule on the definition of Waters of the United States.