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Controversial New Federal Water Rule Hailed in WV

PHOTO: The EPA's new rule clarifies which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act. Conservation groups in West Virginia think it could be especially important for rural areas. Photo courtesy West Virginia Dept. of Tourism.
PHOTO: The EPA's new rule clarifies which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act. Conservation groups in West Virginia think it could be especially important for rural areas. Photo courtesy West Virginia Dept. of Tourism.
May 28, 2015

CHARLESTON, W. Va. – The Obama administration has released a new rule clarifying which waterways are covered by the Clean Water Act.

Many West Virginia conservationists say it's a promising step. Two court decisions have, in a sense, muddied the waters about which protections apply to a number of streams, creeks and wetlands.

Critics are describing the Waters of the U.S. rule as a federal power grab. But Cindy Rank, who chairs the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy's Mining Committee, says it just makes clear which waterways are protected – in her words, "Waters that we have always protected."

"It just will make it clearer after the confusion of the past several years, about these small headwater streams and wetlands, and connected areas," she explains.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the new rule clarifies its jurisdiction on only three percent of the country's surface area, all of which had been covered by the Clean Water Act before.

Rank points out that it also reinforces existing agriculture exemptions. When it comes to the ways the rule could benefit them, she thinks farmers are being misled.

"What the Clean Water Act does is protect the waters they are dependent on for their crops, their animals and their livelihoods," says Rank. "Whoever misleads them is being very disingenuous."

Rank says she believes clarifying protections for small headwater streams will help hundreds of millions of Americans whose tap water is at risk when these upstream tributaries become polluted. She notes it is especially helpful for rural West Virginians.

"For some of us, who live out in the hills and hollows and depend them for our water resources - our drinking water, water for our animals or homes - they are very important, for themselves," she says.

While finalizing the rule, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held more than 400 public meetings and considered more than a million public comments.

According to the EPA, nearly 90 percent of public comments favored the rule. However, some farm and mining groups and real estate developers say the new rule hampers their operations by controlling every tiny stream and wetland.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV