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Big winners in Trump rollback of wetlands rules? Developers

Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, speaks in December in Lebanon, Tennessee, about a Trump administration proposal to redefine "waters of the United States." Representatives of the administration and Trump himself often say farmers will be the biggest winners from the proposed rollback of federal protections for wetlands and waterways. But under longstanding federal law and rules, farmers and farm land are already exempt from most of the regulatory hurdles the administration is seeking to cut back. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, speaks in December in Lebanon, Tennessee, about a Trump administration proposal to redefine “waters of the United States.” Representatives of the administration and Trump himself often say farmers will be the biggest winners from the proposed rollback of federal protections for wetlands and waterways. But under longstanding federal law and rules, farmers and farm land are already exempt from most of the regulatory hurdles the administration is seeking to cut back. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

By ELLEN KNICKMEYER, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said on Monday that farmers would be the big winners from the administration’s proposed rollback of federal protections for wetlands and waterways across the country.

But under long-standing federal law and rules, farmers and farmland are already exempt from most of the regulatory hurdles the Trump administration is seeking to curtail. The real winners, according to environmental groups, would be builders, oil and gas drillers and other industry owners, who would have greater freedom to do what they want on projects if the federal government eased up regulations that now prevent certain bogs, creeks and streams from being filled as part plowing, drilling, mining or building work.

Government numbers released last month support those contentions.

Real-estate developers and their counterparts in other industries take out substantially more permits than farmers for projects touching on wetlands, creeks and streams, and they stand to reap the biggest regulatory and financial relief from the Trump administration’s rollback of wetlands protections.

Speaking to the American Farm Bureau Federation in New Orleans, Trump told farmers the federal protections for waterways and wetlands were “one of the most ridiculous” regulations.

“It was a total kill on you and other businesses,” Trump said. He contended farmers and builders alike wept in gratitude when, in 2017, he signed an executive order calling for extensive revisions of the wetlands protections.

“We’re going to keep federal regulators out of your stock tanks, your drainage ditches, your puddles and your ponds,” Trump told cheering farmers on Monday.

The part of the Clean Water Act up for reconsideration governs work that would result in dirt or fill that could get into a wetland or waterway. Farmers have long benefited from exceptions in the law. They, for instance, have no need to get a permit to do ordinary ongoing farming that might send some soil running off into a nearby wetland.

Opponents contend Trump and his administration are going out of their way to depict farmers as the chief beneficiaries of the proposed rollback because of the strong regard Americans tend to have for farming. Critics, though, say all that is just meant to draw attention away from the people the proposed change is real intended to help.

“The administration understands good optics in surrounding themselves with farmers,” said Geoff Gisler, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Surrounding themselves with folks that would represent the industries that actually benefit would not be as good an optic.”

Supporters “have been really happy to have farmers be the face of it,” said Kenneth Kopocis, Environmental Protection Agency deputy assistant administrator for water under the Obama administration. But some of the biggest beneficiaries are going to be the building industry and oil and gas companies.

A more-than-300-page financial analysis the administration released last month when it formally proposed the rollback suggests just how much developers are likely to benefit. Of the 248,688 federal permits issued from 2011 to 2015 for work that would deposit dirt or other fill into protected wetlands, streams and shorelines, 990 a year on average required home builders and other developers to do some kind of mitigation — pay to restore a wetland elsewhere, generally, according to the government’s analysis.

Both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which together with the EPA administers the wetlands protections, and the National Association of Home Builders confirmed on Friday that it has been developers and people doing similar sorts of work rather than farmers who have borne the brunt of the federal wetlands protections and would see the most benefit from the proposed rollback.

“The residential construction industry does pull more wetlands permits than farmers do,” Liz Thompson, spokeswoman for the National Association of Home Builders, said in an email.

The Trump administration’s pending rollback of wetlands protections “could be a benefit to builders who will see some relief in terms of cost and time. That said, builders will still be regulated and will still be the industry that pulls the largest number of 404 permits which are very costly,” Thompson wrote, referring to the section of the Clean Water Act dealing with regulatory enforcement and permits.

The administration’s proposal greatly narrows down what kind of wetlands and streams fall under federal protection. If it is formally adopted after a public-comment period, it will change how the federal government enforces the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act and scale back a 2015 Obama administration rule governing which sorts of waterways are protected. Environmental groups say millions of miles of streams and wetlands will lose protection.

Trump signed an order in February 2017 calling for the rollback. With farmers as well as homebuilders by his side, Trump deemed the waterways protections then in force a “massive power grab” affecting “nearly every puddle or every ditch on a farmer’s land.”

But environmental groups, public-health organizations and others say it will be impossible to keep the country’s downstream lakes, rivers and water supplies clean unless upstream waters are also regulated federally.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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