President-elect Donald Trump’s recent pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency wants to relax regulations affecting the nation’s water sources. Attorney General Scott Pruitt said he disagrees with provisions of the Obama administration’s 2015 Clean Water Rule, which puts small waterways — like wetlands — under federal jurisdiction.
Pruitt is a leading critic of the federal regulation, saying it is “breathtaking in its overreach.”
Morning Shift spoke with Henry Henderson, director of the Midwest Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, to discuss what the Trump administration might mean for the Clean Water Act, the Clean Water Rule and the future of the Great Lakes.
What is the Clean Water Rule?
The Clean Water Rule was put into place by the Obama administration particularly to protect interconnected waterways from contamination, Henderson said.
“It’s restoring a range of protections that are scientifically based on the fact that a whole range of waters are actually connected to each other,” Henderson said. “The open water of the Great Lakes is one-third of the actual watershed. Two-thirds of the Great Lakes watershed goes into groundwater, to upstream tributaries, where people live.
“A whole range of protections of ground water are essential to the well-being and health of the entire water system. I think those are at risk.”
On potential dangers to the Great Lakes
Lake Erie was on the verge of collapse in 1972 before the Clean Water Act, Henderson said. After a recovery, he said Lake Erie is now back on the edge due to several factors, including climate change, invasive species and the dumping of animal waste into waterways by factory farms.
Henderson said deregulation could accelerate these conditions in each of the Great Lakes.
“You cannot subsidize the economic activity of private interests by the lungs of children, by the dirt in the air, by dumping chicken waste into the water, which makes it impossible to drink,” Henderson said.
On infrastructure investment as a possible common ground
“The fact that President-elect Trump talks a lot about infrastructure is a point of potential engagement,” Henderson said. “The question is what kind of infrastructure are we talking about.”
Henderson cited the United States drinking water system as an old system in need of review. He also said that if the next president begins infrastructure projects without considering environmental impact, that would cause a problem.
“We want to see the investment in infrastructure that is scientifically based and actually deals with the source of pollution. It is unclear where that stands with the incoming administration.”
On the danger of ceding control over environmental regulation to the states
“One of the things Scott Pruitt has said is that he wants to return authority back to the states, and not have the federal government involved in a range of environmental activities,” Henderson said.
Henderson said the crisis in Flint, Michigan — where lead contaminated the city’s drinking water after it changed its water supply in 2014 — was not properly addressed right away by city and state officials.
“Flint was driven by absolute incompetence on the state level, which looked at what? The economic bottom line as opposed to delivering safe water to people. It’s a public trust issue that was completely put aside and put on the shelf and ignored for a fictional bottom line that actually has ended up costing billions of dollars to fix with enduring and irreversible brain damage to children.”
“There are a whole range of states that could do a very good job. I think there are some that cannot do a good job.”
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