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Trump Greenlights Destruction Of Wetlands And Dumping Of Raw Sewage

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To the strains of Lee Greenwood’s song “Proud to be an American,” President Trump took the stage at the American Farm Bureau convention in Austin last week and boasted about repealing water pollution control regulations across the U.S.

“I terminated one of the most ridiculous regulations of all – the last administration’s disastrous Waters of the U.S. Rule,” Trump said, to cheers from the crowd. “It’ s gone.”

The Obama Administration imposed the Waters of the U.S. Rule in 2015 to protect intermittent streams and scattered wetlands that are not adjacent to rivers or lakes. But what Trump did not tell the farm convention is that the Obama-era regulations already exempted most farming practices, as did previous federal and state wetlands protection rules.

So what was at stake in the Trump Administration’s elimination of the Waters of the U.S. rule was not the growing of corn, soybeans or other crops. It was the ability of farmers to sell their land to real-estate developers like Trump who want to build malls and subdivisions on farms with wetlands.

Also unspoken during Trump’s speech was the impact that the regulatory rollback will likely have on non-farmers across the U.S. For example, in the Chesapeake Bay region, the elimination of the 2015 EPA regulations will mean that about 34,000 acres of scattered wetlands on the Eastern Shore will lose their federal protections and will be more vulnerable to developers who want to fill them in for suburban sprawl.

These wetlands – sometimes called “Delmarva Potholes” – are not located next to navigable waterways (which remain protected). But these low-lying, often wooded, soggy patches of wetlands plants provide a critically important ecological role by filtering farm runoff pollution, before it reaches Chesapeake Bay waterways.

What Trump also did not announce to the agricultural convention in Texas is that his EPA has been quietly working to weaken water pollution control regulations in several other ways.

For example, the Trump EPA has recently renegotiated sewage control agreements with Pittsburgh, St. Louis and other cities. The re-negotiations allow them to escape from the terms of previous consent decrees that required them to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade their antiquated and leaky combined sewage and stormwater systems.

The deals being cut by the administration, according to reporting by The New York Times, will allow many cities to continue to dump raw human waste into local waterways whenever it rains. 

In the Chesapeake Bay region, Washington D.C. and Arlington, Virginia, for example, have been planning to build additional underground tunnel and tank systems to temporarily hold and then treat sewage mixed with rainwater so it does not contaminate the Potomac River. 

Such clean water projects could be put on hold if the Trump EPA no longer regards it as necessary to keep human feces out of our streams and rivers. 

Pennsylvania’s state capital, Harrisburg, released 1.4 billion gallons of sewage and stormwater into the Susquehanna River in 2018. It will no longer feel any pressure to end this Third-World style pollution if the Trump Administration views such infrastructure improvement mandates as meddling by Washington bureaucrats.

The reason usually given for not fixing sewer systems is that it just costs too much – in Baltimore’s case, $1.6 billion dollars to repair its leaky lines.  But consider this: The corporate tax breaks that the Trump Administration passed in 2017 granted just one company, COMCAST – to cite a random example of a name with which we are all familiar -- a $13 billion cash windfall in one year. 

That means that one company -- COMCAST – alone could easily afford to pay for the repair or upgrades to eight Baltimore-sized sewer systems a year, every year, simply by returning to Obama-era tax rates. Think of what Amazon could contribute if it paid a penny in corporate taxes.

It’s time to clean up our grossly contaminated political system and use our corporate tax dollars to clean up America’s rivers and streams.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.