New Administration Proposal Would Jeopardize Clean Water Act Protections for Streams, Lakes and Wetlands, says NRDC

Group Warns Proposal Part of a Larger Campaign to Gut Key Environmental Laws

WASHINGTON (January 10, 2003) -- Today's Bush administration proposal to limit the scope of Clean Water Act coverage would threaten all U.S. waterways, according to NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). The administration issued two related documents: an "advanced notice of proposed rulemaking," which calls into question federal Clean Water Act protection for a variety of waterbodies; and an attached "guidance" document for the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which discourages their field offices from protecting wetlands. The advanced notice allows for a 45-day public comment period.

"There is no legal or scientific justification for legalizing pollution in waterways that have been protected for three decades," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "The Bush administration doesn't seem to understand that all of our waters are connected. If you allow corporate polluters to dump toxic waste in creeks, it will flow into our rivers and threaten our drinking water."

Today's proposal opens up a range of possible rule changes, but any change would jeopardize the integrity of the Clean Water Act, Stoner said. The waterways at risk are creeks, small streams, and many types of wetlands, which could become vulnerable to unrestricted dredging, filling and waste dumping. Exempting them from clean water protection would affect all Americans by drying up and polluting drinking water sources, and flooding homes and businesses. Finalizing this proposal also could threaten wildlife habitat. For example, it could decimate the U.S. duck population.

"The administration's proposals are scientifically bankrupt," said Daniel Rosenberg, a wetlands expert at NRDC. "The Clean Water Act has been tremendously successful because its longstanding rules ensure that all waterbodies, large or small, are protected. Once again, the White House has tuned out the science and is only listening to the siren song of mall developers and mining companies."

The Army Corps of Engineers and EPA claim that the proposed rulemaking is a necessary response to a January 2001 Supreme Court ruling, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers (SWANCC), that limited federal Clean Water Act authority over wetlands that were protected only because they provide habitat for migratory birds. However, neither the Supreme Court ruling nor the majority of lower court rulings suggested the need for new rules.

"The Supreme Court did not suggest that the basic framework of the Clean Water Act be dismantled," said Stoner. "Invoking this court decision is just an excuse to allow developers, mining companies, and other polluting industries to fill in wetlands and to dump waste into small streams. These radical changes in the Clean Water Act are being promoted by some of the same polluting industries that financed the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign."

States do not have programs to compensate if the administration kills federal protection, Stoner said. Since most states rely on the backstop of federal regulation, few have comprehensive programs that protect wetlands, creeks, streams and ponds. States have largely relied on federal Clean Water Act permits as the primary way to control pollution in their waterways.

NRDC said today's proposal is part of a larger administration campaign. "This is just one salvo in the Bush administration's all-out assault on fundamental protections for our air, water and public health," said Gregory Wetstone, NRDC's director of advocacy. "Emboldened by the election, and unrestrained by serious congressional oversight, the Bush administration has intensified its effort to undermine our landmark environmental laws."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 500,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages

Wetlands at Risk