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EPA moves to give clean water regulation to South Carolina, the rest of the United States

June 28, 2017 GMT

The Environmental Protection Agency took the first formal step Wednesday to give the state control of regulations that affect the quality of drinking water for nearly 2 million people in South Carolina.

The agency issued a proposed rule that would repeal President Barack Obama-era federal Clean Water protections across the nation, including the Palmetto State.

The move — expected since a review of the protections was ordered in February — has been championed by business interests as rolling back excessive government regulation but opposed by conservation interests as endangering public safety.

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The Obama rule restricted development around wetlands and small streams that feed groundwater and headwaters of larger navigable streams historically under federal purview. The repeal could affect issues such as regulating stormwater runoff pollution, which tends to collect in stream headwaters.

The pollution is now considered the leading threat to water quality across the state and has contributed to alarmingly high fecal bacteria counts in Charleston-area waterways.

The Obama rule limited federal control to larger tributaries that directly feed drinking water streams. The regulations carried specific exemptions for uses such as agriculture and stormwater. It expanded federal regulation of some waters and restricted others.

But it authorized the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers to determine which waters are to be regulated. That has been the rubbing point for opponents.

The proposed rule under President Donald Trump comes in the midst of a court case brought by conservation groups over the February proposal, and as part of a legal battle that has raged in South Carolina for two decades between conservationists and developers over filling in freshwater wetlands.

It is likely to set off another round of lawsuits. Chris De Scherer, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center’s office in Charleston, called it a dramatic rollback of federal authority that is designed to ensure clean water.

“We in South Carolina are especially vulnerable to the loss of these federal protections because we have so many miles of streams and so many valuable wetland areas compared to other states across the country, yet our state water quality programs are underfunded,” he said.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson hailed the change as a relief for the state’s farmers, ranchers and other land owners.

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“The EPA’s regulatory filing has a laudable intent of protecting small streams and wetlands from the risk of pollution. But in fact, it does so through extraordinary means by greatly expanding the already broad definition of ‘Waters of the U.S,’ ” Wilson said.

“This (Obama) expansion would bring many roadside ditches, small ponds on family farms, water features on golf courses and storm water systems under onerous federal regulation. Simply put, our argument is that drainage ditches aren’t navigable waters,” he said.

The proposed rule goes to a 30-day public comment period before the EPA can finalize it. DeScherer said the agency is expected to act quickly.

“If EPA does not provide an adequate explanation for repealing the Clean Water Rule, which it has not to date, we will advise the organizations we are working with to challenge the repeal,” DeScherer said.

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