The Trump administration finalized last week a rule that seeks to strip protections from half the nation’s wetlands and waterways, thereby putting at risk the health of millions of Americans for the benefit of industrial agriculture and corporate polluters.
The new rule aims to strip away Clean Water Act protections from waters that were historically protected from pollution long before the law was passed in 1972. It also paves the way for toxic chemicals from industrial facilities to be dumped in the country’s rivers and streams, and the destruction of wetlands for development. The new rule attempts to drive a stake through the heart of one of America’s most successful environmental laws in history — the Clean Water Act — which has been remarkably successful at improving water quality and preventing water pollution over the past 40 years. This is an egregious example of the motivation for profit over people, and is intended solely to benefit a few at the expense of the vast majority of ordinary Americans.
All of us depend upon and have a right to clean water. This attempted rollback of federal protections will destroy thousands of acres of wetlands and push imperiled species like our wild salmon and southern resident orca closer to extinction. The “Dirty Water Rule,” as we at Puget Soundkeeper and others refer to it, would remove protections for at least 18% of streams and at least 51% of wetlands in the United States — that’s nearly 2 million miles of the nation’s streams and 20 million acres of wetlands.
The rule could strip protections entirely for groundwater, closed basin lakes, ditches, interstate waters and ephemeral streams that only flow in direct response to precipitation. In Washington, more than 2 million residents get their drinking water from ephemeral or intermittent streams.
This comes at a time when the nation’s waters are already imperiled. In Washington state, more than 2,600 water bodies are listed as impaired. Of the 190,000 acres of shellfish areas of the Puget Sound, 36,000 acres are closed due to pollution. Fish tissue samples throughout Washington include mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), dioxins, flame retardants and more than a dozen chlorinated pesticides. Fifteen different salmon and steelhead stocks in Washington are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act today, as are our southern resident orca. In short, toxic pollution is a major threat to the survival of both our endangered salmon and orca. We need more clean water protection, not less.
The Dirty Water Rule also represents a significant step backward for communities of color that already shoulder the brunt of environmental injustice. For example, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has shown that low-income areas and communities of color are disproportionally impacted by pollution, specifically air and water pollution. In Puget Sound, the Duwamish River — Seattle’s only river — is a Superfund site that runs along the most diverse neighborhoods in the city that also suffer from the worst air quality in the state.
EPA’s Dirty Water Rule also threatens tribes and first nations that consume a much larger proportion of fish in their diet. Fish accumulate pollutants and toxic chemicals, which are passed on to humans when consumed. Furthermore, rural and tribal communities in Washington without direct access to clean water may be the first to feel the impacts of the new Dirty Water Rule. By stripping existing protections for waters from pollution, EPA risks harming communities already struggling and unfairly burdened by environmental hazards.
The Dirty Water Rule is bad for the U.S., bad for Washington state and bad for Puget Sound. At Puget Soundkeeper, we and our partners at Earthjustice stand poised to challenge this rule and to defend the public’s right to clean water. Clean water is a right that should be guaranteed for all Americans, not just the wealthiest and privileged among us.