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Trump administration's suspension of clean water rule halted by judge
Ruling doesn’t apply yet in Georgia where other legal action awaits
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Rainwater drains into Lake Lanier in May 2017. - photo by Nick Bowman

Environmental groups, including the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, are celebrating a federal judge’s ruling in South Carolina on Thursday that the Trump administration did not properly seek public input when it suspended protections designed to thwart waterway pollution.

The ruling is likely to be appealed, however, and doesn’t apply in Georgia and 23 other states where legal challenges are pending.

“It’s a huge victory and first step to protecting vital waterways across the nation,” said Jason Ulseth, head of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper.

In June 2017, the Trump Administration moved to undo an Obama-era update to the Clean Water Act that expanded definitions of wetlands and small waterways to protect groundwater and drinking water supplies by restricting development and stormwater runoff.

At the time, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said the rule was “illogical and overreaching” and would burden Northeast Georgia agriculture and small business.

Mike Giles, head of the Gainesville-based Georgia Poultry Federation, said the rollback of the rule was “welcome news” to the state’s poultry farmers.

The Clean Water Rule sought to clarify federal jurisdiction of water resource management under the Clean Water Act of 1972.

The rule prompted intense opposition from Republican lawmakers and lawsuits from several states, including Georgia.

The Environmental Protection Agency rule was stayed by the 6th District Court of Appeals in 2015 after multiple lawsuits. The EPA has been enforcing prior regulations for the past two years.

When the Trump administration sought to end the rule, however, the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of the Riverkeeper and eight other nonprofit environmental groups, filed a lawsuit.

According to the Law Center, the suit contended that the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated “laws that prohibit agencies from removing basic environmental safeguards without telling the public what they are doing, revealing the impact of those changes, and giving the public a chance to weigh in.”

The U.S. District Court in South Carolina ruled that Trump’s EPA failed to give adequate public notice and a comment period before suspending the Clean Water Rule, allowing the rule to be implemented in 26 states.  

By comparison, the Clean Water Rule was finalized after 200 days of public comment and a review of 1,200 studies, according to the Law Center.

Ulseth said that while there is no immediate impact in Georgia, Thursday’s judgment is a long-term step to securing the nation’s waterways and drinking supply from pollution.

Kevin Jeselnik, general counsel for the Riverkeeper, said that once the rule is implemented elsewhere, however, it will be harder to undo.

He also believes that if it does go into effect, lawmakers and industry opposition “might find it works for people and provides clarity.”

“It was really just a rush job with no supporting documentation,” Jeselnik said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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