The Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a new proposal on Tuesday that would eliminate a major part of the Obama-era Clean Water Rule, prompting outcry from environmentalists and others in Maine.
If finalized, what environmentalists are now calling the “Dirty Water Rule” would strip federal safeguards from thousands of miles of waterways across the country by changing the EPA’s definition of "waters of the United States” to include only major waterways and their adjacent wetlands.
According to the EPA’s acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, this change was proposed to "provide states and landowners the certainty they need to manage their natural resources and grow local economies.” Republicans consider federal regulation of these waters a government overreach of property rights.
But by excluding the smaller tributaries that feed into major waterways from federal protections, the risk of pollutants and pesticide runoff making their way downstream is higher, environmentalists say.
“It would jeopardize the drinking water our families rely on,” said Judy Berk, communications director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “It would undermine the streams and wetlands that filter pollution, provide fish and wildlife habitat, and absorb floodwaters. Streams and wetlands act as natural filters and sponges, keeping our drinking water supplies safe while preventing floods. Wetlands are essential to so many towns in Maine. They absorb huge amounts of floodwaters and prevent pollution from contaminating water supplies.”
In Maine, a state with 6,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams, about half of Maine’s drinking water is fed by small streams now protected by the Clean Water Rule.
According to Sarah Saadoun, a researcher at the nonprofit Human Rights Watch, rolling back the Clean Water Rule puts streams at risk of increased pollution from nearby mountaintop removal and coal-mining operations.
“The Trump administration has a consistent track record of weakening protections for people and the environment, while denigrating the scientific evidence that underpins these regulations and claiming they do nothing but hurt business,” said Saadoun in a press release Tuesday.
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-1) also sounded off against the proposal.
“Maine’s former Sen. Muskie would be heartbroken to see the Trump administration gut the Clean Water Act which he crafted to stop pollutants from entering our waterways,” Pingree tweeted Tuesday. “Instead of fixing waters of the U.S., the Dirty Water Rule totally undercuts the promise of clean water for next generation.”
The EPA is currently holding a 60-day public comment period around this issue before making a decision.