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New Clean Water Rule Doesn't Quell Controversy

PHOTO: Coho salmon prefer to spawn in smaller streams, and water quality watchdogs are not convinced the EPA's new Clean Water Rule does enough to protect the fish from pollution. Photo courtesy Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game.
PHOTO: Coho salmon prefer to spawn in smaller streams, and water quality watchdogs are not convinced the EPA's new Clean Water Rule does enough to protect the fish from pollution. Photo courtesy Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game.
May 28, 2015

SEATTLE - It's been years in the making, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just released a new Clean Water Rule, which supporters say will better protect streams and wetlands from pollution – and opponents say either goes too far, or doesn't go far enough.

In past years, U.S. Supreme Court decisions had made it unclear whether federal Clean Water Act protections covered some headwater streams or seasonal bodies of water.

The new rule is an attempt to clarify that, but Chris Wilke, executive director of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, feels the EPA has caved to industry pressure in spelling out the definitions.

"Some of those protections remain in place, but we cannot protect all tributaries to the waters of the U.S. under this rule," says Wilke. "So, it applies to far less waterways, and it will result in more pollution going into navigable waterways."

Wilke warns it will affect Northwest salmon, particularly coho that spawn in small streams.

President Barack Obama said Wednesday the new rule was written to keep from "getting in the way of farming, ranching or forestry" – all groups that have been vocal opponents of the original rule or attempts to strengthen it.

The Clean Water Act was passed in the 1970s to protect drinking water, but water quality also is a big part of the multi-billion-dollar outdoor recreation economy in the Northwest.

John Gale, conservation director with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, says his group sees the changes as practical, and a way to eliminate confusion.

"It's long overdue, and it represents the best chance in more than a generation to clarify the Clean Water Act protections," says Gale. "While preserving and in a lot of cases, enhancing exemptions for farmers and ranchers and foresters that encourage and promote wise stewardship of land and water resources."

Gale points out the EPA received more than a million comments and the rule-making process was lengthy, with plenty of time for all sides to share their views. But legal and congressional challenges to the new Clean Water Rule are expected.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA