Newspaper column: EPA Repeals Obama-Era Land Use Restrictions

Trump’s EPA rolls back Obama-era Clean Water Act rules. (AP pix via WSJ)

The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency has finalized the repeal of yet another Obama-era regulatory overreach, specifically rules that defined every stream, ditch, seasonal puddle and muddy hoof print as being covered by the restrictions of the Clean Water Act of 1972 that was intended to prohibit pollutants being dumped into navigable waters — known as the waters of the United States or WOTUS.

First announced in December but finalized this past week, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said, “Our revised and more precise definition will mean that farmers, property owners and businesses will spend less time and money determining whether they need a federal permit.”

When the change was first proposed, Wheeler said, “Property owners will be able to stand on their property and determine what is federal water without having to hire outside professionals.”

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Jennifer Houston issued a statement applauding the change.

“The 2015 WOTUS Rule was an illegal effort by the federal government to assert control over both land and water, significantly impacting our ability to implement vital conservation practices,” Houston said. “After years spent fighting the 2015 WOTUS Rule in the halls of Congress, in the Courts, and at the EPA, cattle producers will sleep a little easier tonight knowing that the nightmare is over.”

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall released a statement saying, “No regulation is perfect, and no rule can accommodate every concern, but the 2015 rule was especially egregious. We are relieved to put it behind us. We are now working to ensure a fair and reasonable substitute that protects our water and our ability to work and care for the land. Farm Bureau’s multi-year effort to raise awareness of overreaching provisions was powered by thousands of our members who joined with an array of allies to achieve this victory for clear rules to ensure clean water.”

The National Association of Home Builders and the National Association of Manufacturers also praised the repeal of the WOTUS overreach, according to The Wall Street Journal, which noted that roughly 25 percent of every dollar spent on a new home in this country is due to regulatory-compliance costs.

The change brings the EPA more in line with what the U.S. Supreme Court has said is appropriate. In 2010 the Hawkes Co., which mines peat for use on golf courses among other things, applied for a permit to mine peat on a 530-acre tract of property it owns in Minnesota. The Army Corps of Engineers told the company they would have to do numerous tests that would cost more than $100,000. The Corps said the wetlands had a “significant nexus” to the Red River of the North, located some 120 miles away. Failure to comply carried a threat of fines amounting to $37,000 a day and criminal prosecution.

In a concurring opinion in that case, Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, said that the EPA and Corps “ominous reach” on interpreting the Clean Water Act “continues to raise troubling questions regarding the Government’s power to cast doubt on the full use and enjoyment of private property throughout the Nation.”

Chief Justice John Roberts during arguments noted the arduousness of compliance. He said a specialized individual permit, such as the one sought by Hawkes, on average costs $271,596 and 788 days to complete, not counting any mitigation costs that might be required. He said the permitting process can be “arduous, expensive, and long.” He failed to mention that is also often futile.

Then-Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who along with 22 other attorneys general filed an amicus brief in this case, applauded the judgment at that time, saying, “The Obama administration seems determined to move as far and as fast as possible to unilaterally change our constitutional system and our congressional laws. … Fortunately in this case, our checks and balances have protected Nevadans from truly unprecedented federal overreach.”

Nevada’s current Democratic Attorney General is being quoted by the press as saying, “At this time, Nevada believes it would be in its best interest to remain under the pre-2015 WOTUS rule,” and the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection is said to agree.

Though this change in the rules used by the EPA is welcome, some future administration could easily overturn them. Congress needs to act to clarify the Clean Water Act. Previously, the House and Senate passed resolutions that would have blocked the EPA water rules, but in January 2016 the Senate failed to override Obama’s veto.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.