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Smaller TN waterways lose protections under new EPA rule

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has finalized a new rule, saying it clarifies which types of waterways are protected under the Clean Water Act and which are not.

The Navigable Waters Protection Rule, released last week, redefines the term “waters of the United States” to exclude wetlands, streams and other small water bodies from strict pollution controls. The change replaces a 2015 rule with a broader definition.

Kathy Hawes, executive director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network, said the rollback will make it harder for states to control water pollution.

“What this EPA has done is, without any scientific evidence, they’ve announced a rollback that says that pretty much all isolated wetlands and ephemeral streams are not going to be covered under the Clean Water Act,” she said, “which means that the states have no power to enforce water-quality protections.”

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She said the new rule will make it easier for developers or construction companies to acquire permits for projects that destroy wetlands. The EPA has maintained that the change ends “decades of uncertainty” over which waterways fall under federal protection.

Hawes said most smaller water bodies are connected to larger ones, adding that if more pollution ends up in streams and tributaries, it’s going to seep into communities’ drinking-water sources.

“You can’t ensure water quality in a major river if you can’t enforce water-quality protections in those streams,” she said. “It’s just going to pour that pollution right into the major water body.”

Hawes said the new rule would give property owners and developers the green light to use fertilizers, industrial chemicals and other pollutants in or near waters that no longer are protected under the Clean Water Act.

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Hawes said she believes the public hasn’t had enough time to digest the implications of a series of speedy EPA rollbacks to numerous environmental regulations.

“A lot of times, the response times that they give you – it’s a 60-day comment period and then boom, it’s done,” she said, “and before you can read through all the changes and interpret them and put them into layman’s language, it has happened and it is over.”

The EPA is planning to hold a webcast to help explain the new rule on Feb. 13.

The rule change is online at

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