Stop cormorant shoots, judge tells regulators (copy)

The Bushy Park reservoir is one of three sources in the Santee Cooper river system that provide drinking water for most people in the Charleston area. Environmental groups challenged a rollback of Obama-era Clean Water Act rules that govern use of those waters.

In a move that affects half the country, a Charleston judge on Thursday ruled that President Donald Trump’s administration did not properly seek public input when it suspended protections designed to thwart waterway pollution.

U.S. District Judge David Norton issued the judgment in favor of nine environmental groups, allowing restrictions on development around certain waterways. The regulations are aimed at reducing stormwater runoff that is considered a threat to water quality in South Carolina and contributes to high fecal bacteria counts in Charleston-area waters.

The ruling is likely to be appealed, and it does not apply in 24 other states where legal actions are still pending. But the groups called it a significant victory.

"This is a huge win for protecting rivers, wetlands and clean drinking water,” said Bob Irvin, president and CEO of American Rivers, one of the groups that filed the Charleston-based lawsuit against the government.

EPA regional spokesman James Pinckney said the agency and the Army will review the judge's order as they "work to determine next steps."

Under President Barack Obama, the federal government issued a new rule under the Clean Water Act that expanded definitions of wetlands and small waterways. The measure restricted development around waters that feed groundwater supplies and around headwaters of larger navigable streams that fall under federal control.

Aiming to bring the regulation in line with his administration’s efforts to spur economic growth, Trump penned an executive order asking the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to rescind or revise the Obama water rule "as appropriate and consistent with the law."

The resulting new rule suspended its Obama precursor until 2020, allowing regulations from the 1980s to govern the clear water efforts.

Environmental organizations around the country promptly sued the EPA in federal court. The lawsuit filed in February in the Palmetto State included South Carolina-based Charleston Waterkeeper, the Coastal Conservation League and the regional American Rivers chapter.

They said the Obama rule that would expand clean water protections had followed the proper process, being adopted after 200 days of public comment and the review of 1,200 studies. Arguing for the groups, attorneys from the Southern Environmental Law Center contended that the Trump administration should have gone through the same process before making any changes.

Norton, the federal judge in Charleston, agreed with that point and struck down the Trump rule. His opinion came in a summary judgment, which ends a lawsuit before trial when there are no significant factual disputes.

“As administrations change, so do regulatory priorities,” Norton wrote. “But the requirements of the (law governing administrative procedures) remain the same. The court finds that the government failed to comply with these requirements.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the Quick Response Team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.