A federal judge in South Carolina today struck down the administration’s effort to strip away crucial clean water protections from rivers, lakes, streams and other waters that feed drinking-water sources for nearly 20 million people in the South and 117 million people across the country.
Today’s decision follows a legal challenge filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. The ruling ends the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ suspension of clean water protections under the Clean Water Act, one of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws, and puts the Clean Water Rule back in effect for more than half of the country. This ruling does not apply to 24 states where other legal challenges are pending.
“This is a victory for families and communities across America who depend on clean water, and a rebuke to the polluting industries trying to gut this nation’s bedrock health and environmental safeguards,” said Geoff Gisler, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the coalition of conservation groups before the court. “Water is a way of life in the South, where clean water is the lifeblood of our economy. We are thrilled the court rejected this administration’s blatant attempts to undermine safeguards that are critical to our nation’s welfare without being accountable to the American people.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the initial challenge in February on behalf of American Rivers, Clean Water Action, Defenders of Wildlife, Charleston Waterkeeper, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Coastal Conservation League, Friends of the Rappahannock, North Carolina Coastal Federation, and North Carolina Wildlife Federation.
“This is a huge win for protecting rivers, wetlands and clean drinking water,” said Bob Irvin, president and CEO of American Rivers. “The court makes clear that the Trump administration cannot ignore the law, science, or the views of the American people in its rush to undermine protection of rivers and clean water.”
“Today’s decision affirms that rule of law, not politics, must dictate how regulatory decisions are made,” said Jennifer Peters, Clean Water Action’s National Water Programs director. “The Clean Water Rule was adopted with tremendous public support, a fact the Trump administration cannot brazenly ignore. The Administration should immediately scrap its plan to strip critical Clean Water Act protections for certain streams and wetlands and instead ensure all our nation’s waters are safeguarded from harmful pollution.”
“The Suspension Rule typified this administration’s disregard for the environment, the rule of law, and public input,” said Steven Goldstein, legal fellow at Defenders of Wildlife. “Judge Norton’s opinion is not only a victory for clean water but serves as a reminder that scientific and procedural integrity matter.”
“This is a great win in the ongoing effort to finally implement understandable, protective clean water laws based in sound science,” said Kevin Jeselnik, general counsel for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. “Industries will benefit from the clarity the Clean Water Rule provides, and the millions of anglers, paddlers and others will enjoy cleaner, safer water in the Chattahoochee River and its tributaries.”
Their lawsuit contended that EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated fundamental laws that prohibit agencies from removing basic environmental safeguards without telling the public what they are doing, revealing the impact of those changes, and giving the public a chance to weigh in. The court held that the agencies refusal to allow meaningful public comment doomed the rule, stating that “An illusory opportunity to comment is no opportunity at all.” The agencies failed at their most basic responsibilities: evaluating the effect of their reckless actions and allowing the public to comment on their decision to eliminate scientifically backed protections for rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands.
Finalized after 200 days of public comment and review of 1,200 studies, the Clean Water Rule used science to draw clear lines about what American waters are protected from pollution by the Clean Water Act. It replaced a confusing, case-by-case regime with clearer protection for critical waters such as small streams that flow into our rivers and lakes, wetlands that shelter wildlife, and uniquely southern wetlands such as pocosins and Carolina Bays.
The administration’s suspension of standards under the Clean Water Act was the first of several steps the administration plans to take to repeal long-standing clean water protections, which could strip away safeguards from wetlands, rivers, lakes, and drinking water sources that our families and communities use.