State fights ‘burdensome’ clean water regulations (copy)

The Bushy Park reservoir, shown here in 2005, is one of three sources in the Santee Cooper river system that provide drinking water for most people in the Charleston area. Environmental groups are challenging a roll back of Obama-era Clean Water Act rules that govern use of those waters. File.

Within days of the Donald Trump White House stripping Obama administration regulations from the Clean Water Act last week, an unusually large coalition of Southeast environmental groups has gone to federal court to stop it.

The outcome could affect pollution protections in the rivers, streams and lakes that supply drinking water to more than 2 million South Carolina residents and among 20 million in the South.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Charleston, represents a leading legal challenge among several filed across the country.

Filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, the complaint represents nine groups, including South Carolina-based Charleston Waterkeeper, the Coastal Conservation League and the regional American Rivers chapter.

"What we are challenging here is an unprecedented attempt to unravel laws that have been protecting the nation’s waters for decades. What’s going on in Washington is not typical, and we contend it is not legal," said attorney Blan Holman, with the Law Center.

"The combination of local and national conservation groups in this case definitely is significant," Holman said. "Members of the lead plaintiff groups live here and the resources they want to protect are here. Water is a way of life in the Lowcountry, so Charleston is a fitting and natural place to defend attacks on clean water."

At the same time, 11 Democratic state attorneys general filed similar lawsuits, among other actions in different parts of the country. 

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, a Republican, was not contacted by the groups here.

"Attorney General Wilson has been in favor of President Trump's administration taking away the unclear and often confusing language of the Obama administration regulations," Wilson spokesman Robert Kittle told The Post and Courier in relation to the environmentalists' filing.

The Trump move and the challenges have been expected. The Environmental Protection Agency in 2017 proposed a rule that would repeal President Barack Obama-era federal Clean Water protections across the nation after Trump ordered a review of the Obama measures. Conservation groups said then they would fight regulation rollbacks.

The Obama rule expanded the definitions for wetlands and small waterways under the Clean Water Act, restricting development around the water that feeds groundwater and headwaters of larger navigable streams historically under federal purview.

Agribusiness, mining and industry groups opposed it.

The rule was designed to reduce stormwater runoff. The pollution is considered the leading threat to water quality across the state. It has contributed to alarmingly high fecal bacteria counts in Charleston-area waterways.

The regulations carried specific exemptions for uses such as agriculture and stormwater drainage. But it authorized the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to determine which waters were to be regulated. That has been the rubbing point for opponents.

Tuesday's conservation group lawsuit contends that EPA and the Corps of Engineers violated long-standing law that prohibits agencies from altering basic environmental safeguards without giving the public notice and a chance to weigh in.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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