States say half of wetlands would lose protection under EPA proposal

(Reuters) - Fourteen states, including New York and California, and the District of Columbia said the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to replace an Obama-era water regulation would end federal protection for half of wetlands and 15 percent of streams across the country.

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The attorneys general issued a joint statement on Monday critical of the EPA’s proposal to narrow the scope of protections in the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule that President Barack Obama’s administration expanded in 2015 to cover a wide range of water bodies.

The public comment period for the EPA proposal closed on Monday. It is one of dozens of the Trump administration’s efforts to rescind environmental rules to boost the energy and agriculture industries.

The attorneys general said the Trump EPA violated the underlying federal Clean Water Act, whose goal is to restore and maintain “the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.”

Current EPA officials, several Republican-leaning states and farmers said the Obama-era WOTUS rule was too generous in defining what constituted a navigable waterway, often saying small puddles would be subject to regulations.

But the attorneys general, as well as some Democratic senators and environmental groups, said in public comments that the EPA ignored scientific evidence that shows the importance of wetlands, tributaries and floodplains to downstream water quality.

More than a dozen senators, including the top Democrat on the Senate’s environment committee, said the EPA failed to provide good estimates for how many waterways would lose protections under the new proposal.

“They have failed to meet their duties to inform the public, uphold the law, and protect the public and the environment,” the senators wrote in a letter submitted for public comment on Monday.

A group of 17 states, led by West Virginia, sent a separate letter to the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers supporting the EPA’s plan to update the Waters of the United States rule, saying it would provide relief to landowners and farmers.

“Such clarity will spur economic growth as job creators and developers can invest with certainty,” West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey wrote.

The EPA is expected to finalize the WOTUS rule later this year.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Dan Grebler