Goodbye, Clean Water, Goodbye EPA

July 20, 2020

Environment needs to be beyond politics, but we’re nowhere close yet.

The rush by Donald Trump to dismantle the administrative state is producing an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strangely complicit in its own destruction. Bit by bit, the EPA will have less to enforce.

The US Clean Water Act has a symbolic importance. It’s nearly 50 years old and for all this time, has helped to prevent, reduce and eliminate pollution of the ‘Waters of the United States,’ (also called WOTUS).

In EPA criminal cases with significant fines, 16 out of 24 were under the Clean Water Act, with fines of up to $37 million in today’s money, and restitution on top.

But President Donald Trump has the US Clean Water Act in his sights. To weaken it, he has already repealed the Clean Water Rule (also known as the WOTUS rule) which previously defined ‘waters of the United States’ to include wetlands, ponds, ditches and tributaries of rivers.

Clean Water Rule

Under the rule, polluting the navigable waters of the United States was a felony on conviction. Pollution didn’t have to flow directly into a river: it could originate from one of these other sources.

From 22 June 2020, this is no longer true. The repeal so weakens the impact of the Clean Water Act that some are describing the new set-up as ‘the Dirty Water Rule.’

Groundwater was also a hugely important category in ‘waters of the United States.’ Why significant? Because bodies of water which from the surface appear to be free-standing are often connected hydraulically underground. Trump’s repeal of the rule removes groundwater from the picture.

My focus on the Clean Water Act isn’t about criminalising or normalising the behaviour of a few industrialists, about ‘catching’ or not catching bad actors. The legislation matters for three major reasons.

According to non-profit Earthjustice, the repeal of the Clean Water Rule

“…guts protections for wetlands, which… naturally store floodwaters, and act as buffers in coastal locations susceptible to hurricanes.” This makes our unstable climate and weather a potential hazard to those who weren’t vulnerable previously.

The move will also help fast-track oil and gas pipelines.

And finally, it’s morally thin for the USA to act as if it’s shielded from the rest of the planet. Polluted water flows out to the world’s oceans. This is a global issue and needs a global conscience.

Law-and-order president? Environment strangely exempt

With his recent ‘law and order’ rhetoric, Trump seeks to evoke the tough conservative, Nixon, whose administration gave birth to the EPA in the first place.

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So, it’s ironic and deeply inconsistent that he’s tearing down what the 37th president put in place.

And this is an action that won’t be easily reversed in the future.

I’ve talked to EPA field agents, managers and regulators over the years. I’ve heard first-hand how much that is human is needed to keep air, water and land as clean as possible.

It takes outstanding drive to do a job where you can be yelled at, attacked with a nail gun or dogs, and chased down with a car.

So, we might think that EPA enforcers are moved primarily by a moral compass. But one cleared this up for me: “The regulations are my guide, not my conscience. I have to do what they say.”

In a new era enabled by Trump’s deregulation, it will be easier for industrialists to do what they like on what they see as their land.

EPA field agents will knock on the door less often. Their visits will be obstructed. Corporations will string-out correspondence and ignore what little compliance is still expected of them.

Golf-course magnates, like Trump, of course, won’t have to worry so much about run-off.

Extractive industries will be given carte blanche to behave with less transparency and accountability.

Whenever they can, toxics will launch, unmonitored, into the atmosphere. They will travel thousands of miles and bioaccumulate.

Dirty industries, welcome?

Dirty industries might soon proliferate in the United States. In a blink, it could be as welcoming for polluters as it was in the 1960’s.

Trump’s breaking up of the regulatory machine will cut compliance and production costs.

This may boost the US economy in the short term. But the damage will be unforgivably high, the injustices many and unequal.

Teaser Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

Alistair Siddons

I write on biosphere consciousness, environmental justice, climate change and how human actors influence our external conditions.

Tags: American politics, Clean Water Act Enforcement, EPA