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EPA's new leader confirms fears by abandoning water quality rule

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is pandering to polluters who wrongly argue that an EPA clean water rule usurps state authority and violates property rights.

Wetlands just outside of Stone Harbor, N.J., absorb flood waters and filter out pollutants.
Wetlands just outside of Stone Harbor, N.J., absorb flood waters and filter out pollutants.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt seems to think businesses have guaranteed rights to pollute our air and water.

As Oklahoma's attorney general, Pruitt let chicken processors dump 300,000 tons of waste into an estuary of the Illinois River. Now, President Trump's choice to head the EPA is attacking rules that would reduce carbon and methane, two greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

He's set his sights on a clean water rule imposed in 2015 to clarify which waterways are federally protected to safeguard people from toxic water.

Pruitt is pandering to polluters who wrongly argue that the rule usurps state authority and violates property rights by insisting polluters keep their poisons out of waterways that flow into drinking water supplies. Those specious arguments are distractions aimed at muddying the real issue: which waterways are federally protected.

The rule merely requires permits from any enterprise planning to dump sewage or other waste into streams that flow into drinking water. That process allows the government to assess the toxicity of the waste. That's not unreasonable. The government should protect people, animals, and farmland from health-threatening pollutants in the water supply.

For example, the rule bans industries from dumping "any radiological, chemical, or biological warfare agent, any high-level radioactive waste or medical waste" into waters covered by the regulation unless a permit has been obtained. The EPA rule also clearly defines covered waters as streams that flow into the drinking water supply as well as headwaters and wetlands.

States are involved in the process. The EPA asks them to identify protected waters within their boundaries and make plans to ensure they meet state water quality standards. If states are applying their own rules and clean water standards, how is their authority being overlooked?

The EPA under former President Barack Obama issued the rule after months of hearings, testimony, scientific and legal research. The rule cleared up a pair of Supreme Court decisions that left fuzzy whether the federal government had jurisdiction over feeder streams.

In contrast to that process, Science Magazine reports the Trump administration bypassed scientific judgment and is instead making the legal argument that it has the authority to change an EPA rule without having to prove whether that action would make things better or worse.

Clean water in states like Pennsylvania is further threatened by years of budget cuts that reduced the number of water quality inspectors. State Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Patrick McDonnell says that's unacceptable, but without adequate funding what can he do? And Trump's proposed 32 percent cut in EPA's budget will make matters worse.

Without the personnel needed to monitor state compliance with basic water standards, it will be very hard to ensure pollutants don't reach dangerous levels. Clean water is a precious commodity. With the EPA under Trump seeming to turn its back on it, the states must find the means to protect their residents' health.