Waterkeeper Alliance: Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just began the first step of eliminating crucial Clean Water Act prohibitions on pollution discharges that have protected our nation’s waterways for more than four decades. Taking marching orders directly from industry wish lists, EPA is planning to gut the Clean Water Act by drastically and illegally reducing the type and number of waterways to which federal public health and environmental protections can be applied. Without federal Clean Water Act protections, industry will be free to discharge untreated toxic, biological, chemical, and radiological pollution directly into water bodies without ensuring their waste will not harm human health or water quality. Waterways will be flooded with higher levels of pollutants, endangering lives and livelihoods around the nation.
EPA’s definition of “waters of the United States” (WOTUS), dictates which waters are protected under federal law by the Clean Water Act. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, at the behest of polluting companies, has said that EPA should narrow the definition of WOTUS to only apply to “large bodies of water capable of serving as pathways for interstate commerce.” If he succeeds in doing that, most water bodies in the country would be excluded from Clean Water Act protection – including many, if not most, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, streams, wetlands, and coastal waterways. This will harm the public because, among other things, these waterways are used as drinking water supplies, recreational waters, and fisheries, and uncontrolled pollution discharges will also contaminate larger water bodies as pollution moves downstream.
Without the Clean Water Act’s clear minimum public health and water quality standards, states are unlikely to fill the gap; in fact, states would be more likely to cave to powerful industry interests in a classic “race to the bottom.” For example, Wisconsin is currently considering a bill that would completely exempt FoxConn – a company that drew international attention for reportedly dumping toxic chemicals into rivers in China – from the state’s water protection laws. If the Clean Water Act is gutted, we could see such maneuvers all over the country, leading to industry polluting our waterways with impunity. The impacts will likely be felt most directly in already disadvantaged communities where powerful interests easily influence state and local laws. But, because pollution inevitably moves downstream, waterways and communities downstream from uncontrolled discharges will also become polluted.