The Trump administration announced plans Tuesday to roll back Obama-era rules protecting isolated streams and wetlands from industrial pollution. The rules haven’t been imposed in Missouri and numerous other states because of ongoing litigation.
The new plan does away with federal oversight of seasonal creek beds and ponds that aren’t directly connected to navigable water (water deep enough for a vessel to pass through).
Eric Bohl, Director of Public Affairs & Advocacy for the Missouri Farm Bureau, says the Obama era rules, known as Waters of the US (WOTUS), are a legal overreach because creek beds and ponds aren’t navigable. “There isn’t navigable water there,” said Bohl. “And that’s what the law says. The federal government only has the power to govern navigable water, and that’s just not any common sense definition (of what’s) navigable.”
Missouri joined other states in launching a legal battle against the Obama era policy. Federal courts halted the implementation of the 2015 rules in 28 states, including Missouri resulting from the litigation. But the rules have taken effect in the other 22 states.
The new Trump administration law, which will now go through a 60-day public comment period, preserves federal authority over navigable waters, tributaries, lakes, and wetlands adjacent to or connected to larger bodies of water.
“Ephemeral” streams, which are dry creek beds which occasionally accumulate water during storms or floods would no longer be subject to government supervision, nor would groundwater, farming ditches or storm control and waste treatment systems.
Bohl with the Missouri Farm Bureau points out the rules put forth by the Obama administration could require farmers to apply for waivers to conduct normal activity. “Farmers and ranchers are already good stewards of the land and do everything that they can to protect the land that they farm, and the waters that they drink out of,” Bohl said. “Most of them drink well water that would be affected by these things if they weren’t treating it well.”
John Hickey with the Sierra Club of Missouri contends that isolated bodies of water are susceptible to contamination and need to be protected by regulations. He points to the recent discovery of toxic waste near a cave tourist attraction near Springfield. A cancer-causing chemical that leaked from a now-closed industrial site near the Springfield airport has reached some nearby water wells and is now threatening the Fantastic Caverns attraction.
Hickey says the contamination could have been avoided with proper safeguards. “That’s the purpose of Waters of the US,” said Hickey. “It’s much cheaper for everybody to not pollute the groundwater than to pollute the groundwater and then try and clean it up later because the reality is you can’t. I think Fantastic Caverns is a great example (of that).”
The chemical — trichloroethylene (TCE) — was used by Litton Systems Inc. to remove grease from metal parts when it assembled circuit boards near the airport starting in the in the 1960s and continuing for decades. Northrup Grumman bought the Litton site after it closed in 2007 and is now responsible for the contamination that’s been emitted from the plant.
Hickey thinks government oversight of water sources is necessary to keep industrial polluters in check. “There are operators who cut corners to save money, and then that cost is put onto the public,” Hickey said. “And the public has to deal with the cost of the polluted groundwater, the disease that comes from that, the illnesses.”
The Obama rule was developed jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers under the authority of the 1972 Clean Water Act. Both Republican Presidents George .H.W. Bush and George W. Bush made changes that extended the reach of federal oversight of waterways before the adoption of the 2015 rule under President Obama which further extended such regulations.
The non-profit Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership disagrees with the newly announced rules from the Trump administration, saying “it disregards the EPA’s own research that shows wetlands and ephemeral and intermittent streams, even those that lack surface connection, provide important biological and chemical functions that affect downstream waters.”
The Missouri Farm Bureau’s Bohl says his organization has long been against the Obama era rule because it lacks clarity and illegally sidestepped the role of Congress to make laws. “We opposed that action, not only because it was unconstitutional to expand legislation beyond the scope of the law, but also because it didn’t provide any clear guidance as to what the law was,” Bohl said.
The Sierra Club’s Hickey thinks the Farm Bureau’s desire for rolling back regulations on water sources is short-sided, given that one of Missouri’s biggest farm operators is owned out of China. “I think the Farm Bureau telling us, ‘Don’t worry, trust Bejing with our groundwater,’ look at the air in Bejing,” said Hickey. “The Chinese government doesn’t worry about poisoning their own damn people. Why are they going to worry about poisoning Missourians.”
The State legislature loosened the restriction on foreign agricultural land ownership in 2013, a week before a Chinese meat-processing giant bought Smithfield Foods, which had significant assets in Missouri. Shuanghui International Holdings, now known as WH Group, purchased Smithfield Foods for $4.7 billion. WH Group is privately owned.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Army will take comment on the Trump administration proposal for 60 days after its publication in the Federal Register.