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Greenville Business Magazine

Conservation Groups Mount Legal Challenge to Federal Water Action

Apr 29, 2020 04:04PM ● By David Dykes

By David Dykes

Conservation groups challenged in federal court what they contend are the Trump administration's effort to gut clean water protections from wetlands and streams that feed drinking-water sources for 200 million Americans and 32 million people in the South.

The legal challenge, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, opens a major court battle over the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' re-definition of what waters are protected under the Clean Water Act.

Conservationists contend that leaves many waterways unprotected as well as the communities and wildlife that rely on them.

The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the challenge on behalf of American Rivers, Charleston Waterkeeper, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Clean Water Action, Defenders of Wildlife, Environment America, Friends of the Rappahannock, James River Association, National Wildlife Federation, North Carolina Coastal Federation, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Roanoke River Basin Association and South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.

The lawsuit contends the federal agencies' action was an unlawful departure from decades of bipartisan practice. Among other things, the agencies failed to explain or evaluate the impact of their actions on the nation's water quality or give Americans a meaningful opportunity to comment on the elimination of scientifically-based protections for streams and wetlands, conservationists contend.

The lawsuit contends the agencies acted contrary to the Clean Water Act's central aim to protect the integrity of America's waterways and ignores basic science – a point conservationists say is underlined by EPA's own Science Advisory Board, which warned that the proposed rule flew in the face of established studies and research.

The challenged rule ignores the intent of the Clean Water Act, which a bipartisan Congress passed in 1972 because state-by-state efforts to clean the nation's waters failed, conservationists contend.

They say the agencies' bid to dramatically reduce water protections was met with overwhelming opposition, with the bulk of more than 600,000 comments submitted from across the country opposed to the stripping away the Clean Water Act's reach.

"Every family and community across America relies on clean water, but these agencies ignored all that to facilitate unlimited water pollution across the nation," said Blan Holman, senior attorney and leader of the Clean Water Defense Initiative at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the conservation groups in court. "This unlawful rule puts the water used by hundreds of millions of Americans for drinking, bathing, fishing, and business at risk as well as countless communities that deal with floods and hurricanes. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that pollution dumped upstream flows downstream, but the agencies shut their eyes to science and common sense. That violation of the law is why we're going to court to protect clean water."

"The Trump administration's Dirty Water Rule would reverse 50 years of progress protecting clean water in our country," said Bob Irvin, president and CEO of American Rivers. "It ignores science and threatens the health and safety of hundreds of millions of people who depend on rivers and streams for clean water. We will continue standing up against this administration's reckless rollbacks to our clean water safeguards because our nation's health, security and future depend on it."

"It's hard to imagine a worse idea," said Andrew Wunderley, Charleston waterkeeper. "Aggressive growth is threatening our freshwater wetlands and there are no state or local protections to fall back on in South Carolina. Removing these protections now means more flooding and more pollution--that's not good for anyone."

The federal agencies have 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.