About 20 years ago, the Girl Scouts at Camp Coleman in Trussville, Alabama, lost the ability to safely splash in the river flowing past their lodge. The waterway had doubled as their playground until a chicken processing facility began dumping untreated waste (blood, feathers, and inedible body parts) into a small seasonal creek that fed into the river upstream. The effluence triggered milky-white algae blooms and sullied the waters flowing past Camp Coleman and onward into the Cahaba River, just upstream from the town’s drinking water intake.
Two citizen groups, the Alabama Environmental Council and Cahaba River Society, along with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), filed a lawsuit saying that Gold Kist, the chicken processing company, was illegally polluting a tributary of the Cahaba River and therefore violating the Clean Water Act. The case settled confidentially in 2002. However, in the aftermath, the plant closed, putting an end to the harmful dumping practices, which, in turn, led to a dramatic 50 percent improvement in the river’s phosphorus pollution. The algae cleared, water quality improved, and the Girl Scouts returned to enjoying the river.
Unfortunately, if the Camp Coleman scenario happened today, the outcome would not necessarily prove so positive. In April, the Trump administration issued the largest rollback to the Clean Water Act since its inception in 1972. The act regulates the discharge of pollutants into “Waters of the United States.” This term has historically been applied well beyond navigable waterways, which are those used for commerce and transport. But a legal ruling by the Supreme Court in 2006 threw into confusion the long-held view that some waterways, such as wetlands and smaller rain-dependent streams, also fall under the act’s purview. In 2015, President Obama issued the Clean Water Rule, clarifying that these waters serve critical functions and are therefore covered by the law.
However, the Trump administration repealed the 2015 rule and replaced it with a frail substitute called the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, or what we call the “Dirty Water Rule.” The new rule pulls federal protections from many wetlands and headwaters, potentially removing seasonal creeks like the one in Trussville from the act’s coverage. Without overarching federal safeguards, the onus of protecting these waterways falls on individual states. But legal and environmental experts say that the rule essentially provides a carte blanche for energy, agriculture, and development industries to pollute smaller waterways, especially in states with underfunded environmental agencies, such as the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), which has the tiniest of such budgets in the country.
“For Alabama—and I would argue this is a nationwide thing—the U.S. Geological Survey finds that about 50 to 60 percent of streams already fail to meet water quality standards,” says Randy Haddock, field director for the Cahaba River Society. “If we relax the rules that apply to the Clean Water Act, water quality is not going to get better, but worse.”
One of Alabama’s greatest assets is its abundance of freshwater. With 133,000 miles of streams and more than 3 million acres of wetlands, the state’s ubiquitous waterways support drinking, recreation, flood mitigation, pollution control, and biodiversity. Alabama boasts more species of freshwater fish, mussels, and turtles than anywhere else in the country. The flip side to this aquatic abundance is that Alabamians have a lot to lose.
“This rule cuts the knees out of the arteries for the system, such as nontidal wetlands and ephemeral streams,” says Keith Johnston, managing attorney with SELC Alabama. “You will be affecting water quality downstream and biodiversity in the state.”
According to analysis by the SELC, Trump’s Dirty Water Rule jeopardizes important streams that flow into Alabama’s rivers, lakes, and bays, millions of acres of wetlands across the country, as well as the water supply for many Alabamans. The weakening of clean water standards also risks Alabama’s annual $2.7 billion wildlife recreation industry, the state’s yearly $456 million fishing industry, and all the priceless endemic aquatic species that live under rocks or in a river’s shadowed hollows.
Look no further than the Black Warrior waterdog (aka Alabama mudpuppy), a large salamander that serves as an important indicator species for water quality in the Black Warrior River basin. The waterdog recently received the luckless title of “most endangered species in the state.” Scientists think the primary causes of the amphibian’s decline are silt and polluted runoff—two forms of pollution destined to increase under the new rule.
“Damaged habitat, altered habitat, and degraded water quality have a trickle-up effect on all the predators that survive in an aquatic system,” says Nelson Brooke, who manages the Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s patrol and legal programs. “If we already have imperiled critters after more than 40 years of protections, and then all of sudden there’s this erroneous decision to scale back what is protected, then we’re just essentially opening the gate for the species to degrade.”
The burden of protection now falls to the ADEM. ADEM provides permits for industries, such as land developers looking to discharge pollution into waterways. Even if the agency wanted to adequately protect ephemeral streams and wetlands, it doesn’t have the backing at the state legislature, says Brooke. The result? An agency that’s chronically underfunded and understaffed, a trend that won’t change anytime soon.
That leaves citizen groups, like the Cahaba River Society, as the final barrier between Alabama’s waterways and polluting industries. And in Trussville, if chicken waste was being dumped into the Girl Scout’s seasonal stream today, the Dirty Water Rule would make it very difficult—and certainly costly and time-consuming—to prove that the polluted stream flowed sufficiently to have federal protection.
The progress made to protect people’s drinking water, recreation, and biodiversity over the last 48 years is at risk, says Brooke. “Without these protections, there’s nothing there.”
Trump’s rule, of course, is already being challenged. “This is obviously terrible public policy. And it’s illegal to boot, which is why we’re going to court,” says Jon Devine, director of federal water policy for NRDC. SELC, along with several other environmental groups, has also sued the administration. The fight to protect the waters of the United States, in Alabama and everywhere else, is far from over. Scout’s honor.
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