Biden Restores States’ Clean Water Rights

For half a century, the federal Clean Water Act gave state and tribal governments the right to delay or even block projects that could harm their waters and wetlands. Then the Trump Administration tried to gut that authority. Now, President Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to give that authority back.

The proposed rule revision restores states’ and tribes’ ability to review and impact permits under the Clean Water Act’s Section 401 water quality certification process. Permits for pipelines, coal terminals, highways, and other development projects that could harm clean water will be affected by the change.

“For 50 years, the Clean Water Act has protected water resources that are essential to thriving communities, vibrant ecosystems, and sustainable economic growth,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “EPA’s proposed rule builds on this foundation.”  

“I applaud EPA’s announcement today to restore the rights of states, territories, and Tribes to safeguard their water resources — an essential tool for states to protect their people, local economies, and public health,” said U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. “This marks yet another step the Biden Administration has taken to reverse the harmful polices of the Trump era and to uphold the Clean Water Act. The Section 401 process is a prime example of states and the federal government working together to protect clean water while keeping local expertise in the driver’s seat. The proposed rulemaking reinstates our bipartisan commitment to clean water with policies that protect, not pillage, our most precious natural resources.”  

This change has enormous potential to improve the protection of waterways and wetlands from degradation by federally permitted projects and developments. The Trump EPA sought to change the process in order to push fossil fuel projects and other developments through more quickly and with less environmental review.

“Federally-permitted projects, such as hydro dams, wetland fills, and fossil fuel pipelines, can threaten water bodies’ health in numerous ways,” noted Jon Devine, director of federal water policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “These projects risk oil spills, choke aquatic life with sediment runoff, destroy flood- and pollution-trapping wetlands, and deprive fish populations of the water they need to survive. By proposing to undo the Trump administration’s illegal and reckless restrictions on states’ and Tribal Nations’ authority to prevent these harms, EPA is taking an important step for the health of the nation’s waters.”

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