A South Carolina legal attempt to keep the federal government from stripping away its own Clean Water Act regulations might be about to take a turn toward Texas.
The U.S. District Court in Charleston on Thursday will hear the federal Environmental Protection Agency's motion to move a case to Texas that was filed by a coalition of Southeast environmental groups and led by the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League.
The outcome of the case could affect pollution protections in rivers, streams and lakes that supply drinking water to more than 2 million South Carolinians and 20 million people in the South.
Where the case is heard could decide the verdict, conservationists say.
The lawsuit is one of several attempts to stop the Trump administration from removing Obama administration regulations from the act or challenging the original Obama regulations.
In its filing, the EPA says it wants the move to consolidate complaints.
The lawsuits would be merged into an ongoing Texas case, filed in 2015, to challenge the Obama regulations. That court "is already immersed in the detailed factual and legal background of the Clean Water Act," U.S. Attorney Beth Drake, of the South Carolina office, said in the local filing.
Conservationists worry the venue change not only would make it harder for them to argue their case but also would put the lawsuit in a court where the oil industry and other business interests have headquarters, and might have more sway. The 2015 case was filed by those interests.
"It's billed as a procedural move, but it's a very significant and substantive issue," said attorney Blan Holman, with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the conservation groups.
"We filed our challenge in South Carolina because we live here, and the rivers, lakes, and wetlands we love and use would be hit hard by this administration's attempt to strip away protections," added Lisa Jones Turansky, the Coastal Conservation League's chief conservation officer.
"Forcing us to go a thousand miles away to Galveston, Texas, does not make any practical or legal sense," she said. "The administration is trying to scrap clean water standards that prevent pollution from flowing downstream and reduce flooding."
The South Carolina lawsuit contends EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers violated a law that prohibits agencies from altering basic environmental safeguards without giving the public a chance to weigh in. It was filed in February by a coalition of nine groups, including the league, the Charleston Waterkeeper and the regional American Rivers.
U.S. District Court Judge David Norton on Thursday will also hear a motion by 18 business groups that they be allowed to support the requested move.
The groups, ranging from the South Carolina Farm Bureau to the American Petroleum Institute, contend the outcome of the case could raise costs for their businesses, according to arguments listed in their filings. The Farm Bureau followed the lead of its national counterpart, said Harry Ott, president.
"We figured it would be easier for one court to have all of it and make one ruling," he said. "I don't see where having it in Texas as opposed to South Carolina makes it advantageous to one group over another. Both sides only have to fight one battle instead of multiple battles."
The South Carolina lawsuit was filed after the Environmental Protection Agency in 2017 proposed a rule that would repeal President Barack Obama-era federal Clean Water protections across the nation, after President Donald Trump ordered a review of the Obama measures.
The Obama rule expanded the definitions for wetlands and small waterways under the act, restricting development around the water that feeds groundwater and headwaters of larger navigable streams historically under federal purview.
Agribusiness, mining and other 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.