Pruitt refocuses EPA core mission, moves to redefine WOTUS

By: 
April Coble
Staff Writer

After an executive order from President Donald Trump was signed and put into motion on Feb. 28 this year, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has put the wheels in motion to make changes to Waters of the United States (WOTUS) regulations, seeking clarity in the definition of "protected waters" and where federal regulations begin and end.

In a national campaign to seek out what problems are faced with what Pruitt has identified as intentionally vague language, he is traveling on what he calls a "state action tour" including Utah, Minnesota, Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, Iowa, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and a host of other states.

"Largely why we're here is to inform our judgement on what a Water of the United States is and what it isn't," Pruitt said. "It's so important to people here in Oklahoma, but it's (also) important to people across the country."

Pruitt claims a comment process and hearing directly from those the regulations may affect didn't happen in the past.

"Our whole purpose is to hear the people, stakeholders, in those communities to say give us your feedback," Pruitt stated. "What is a perennial water versus an ephemeral water. How do we establish that? As far as wetlands are concerned, how do we deal with the wetlands issue? What about navigability? All those questions that help form our decision on what a Water of the United States is."

Pruitt continued, stating that "good rule making" requires spending time with stakeholders to hear what they have to say and respond to them in the record and make good judgement calls on the definition of a Water of the United States.

"I do want to say it's our obligation to provide a definition," Pruitt continued.

Pruitt stated the 2015 rule is being withdrawn, calling it "deficient", and simultaneously taking on the process of establishing a new definition to provide objectivity and clarity on what a Water of the United States is. He said he estimates and anticipates a new definition of the rule should occur no later than the first quarter of 2018.

Pruitt noted the current rule puts rural communities, farmers and ranchers in the position of not knowing where federal jurisdiction begins and ends.

"If you're going to use your land to build… a pond of some sort, and you find out later the EPA is asserting jurisdiction and you're facing tens of thousands of dollars in fines, that's an impediment to the use of land," Pruitt said. "What the agency has done, unfortunately, is discourage land use by not providing regulatory certainty."

He further stated that was the goal cited by the EPA in past comments during the former administration.

"They said it was about providing clarity, but how do you get clarity when you say a Water of the United States is something that can be determined after the fact by someone in a region of the EPA in the future? That simply just doesn't make any sense at all. So what we're trying to do is prospectively, in advance, provide objective boundaries, criteria that folks will know where federal jurisdiction begins and ends. So farmers and ranchers in this part of the country… can use their land without fear that the EPA is going to come and say you should have got a permit and fine them," Pruitt said.

In order to give a clearer definition in WOTUS, Pruitt says the agency is going into statute for determination and examine legislative history on that statute. He stated before WOTUS, a protected water was determined by navigability.

"In fact, navigable waters under the Clean Water Act are defined as Waters of the United States," Pruitt said. "It's clear, in my estimation, that Congress when the adopted the Clean Water Act, had a view of the definition that is far more narrow than what we see today. It was tied to things like perennial waters."

He further stated he wants to take on all these steps to ensure a new definition is "durable" providing longevity on what a Water of the United States is.

Pruitt says after Trump signed his executive order to move forward with getting a new definition, the EPA moved with "due haste" to carry the order out.

"The work of fixing it is regulatory action. The executive order gives us the fuel, the motive, the direction. Then it's our job to go do that work to provide the definition," Pruitt said. "Which is what this is all about, this state action tour, this dialogue happening with states around the country."

The work toward a clearer definition is currently in the comment period, with those directly affected submitting their comments from all over the country.

"There's an open record at the agency, so people are sending letters, they're sending comments," Pruitt said. "They're sending in comments to say, please consider this… so we're in here in person, and we're also here through the comment period that's taking place."

Pruitt said he hasn't found any surprises in the comments received, but has found some of the process impressive.

"I think the only thing that's been really impressive to me is to be in the field, on the ground in the states and look at what the past administration considered a Water of the United States," Pruitt noted. "In Utah, standing outside a subdivision with an Army Corps of Engineers representative pointing to an ephemeral drainage ditch saying that's a Water of the United States."

"No way that's a Water of the United States under the Clean Water Act or even historically. To see that live and in color is so instructive."

When asked how attitudes have changed from a year ago to now when it comes to the work Pruitt is engaged in through the EPA.

"It's hope," Pruitt said. "Before Nov. 8 last year, these people were thinking, oh my goodness, what are we going to do about these things. You've got a paternalistic agency in Washington D.C. that's trying to tell us how to farm and ranch in Oklahoma, and they were spot on right. Then election day happens, and it's the Book of Genesis. It's a new beginning. So there's light and optimism and hope across the country."

He stated he hopes it will penetrate the "Washington D.C. media bubble".

"They're still not getting that, but people across the country are getting it," Pruitt said. "I mean, consumer confidence is up. Jobs are up. Stock market's up. Optimism's up. Good things are happening."

Sheila Blankenship with the Hooker Advance interviewed Pruitt alongside April Coble and contributed to this story.
This story was originally published in the July 29, 2017 issue of the Guymon Daily Herald.

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