- Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
- President Donald Trump has slashed a number of regulations aimed at protecting America’s waterways, including many that affect the country’s drinking water.
- Trump has contended the regulations he’s rolled back – or sought to rescind – put unnecessary burdens on US industries.
- Research shows millions of Americans are exposed to unsafe drinking water every year, and environmental groups warn Trump’s decisions could compound this issue.
Since entering the White House, President Donald Trump has rolled back a number of environmental regulations put in place by his predecessors that could make drinking water less safe for people across the US.
Trump has faced some legal hurdles in attempting to repeal such regulations, but he’s been fairly successful in this effort as he’s argued that such rules are burdensome to farmers and businesses.
The rules Trump has slashed have made it easier for corporations to dump pollutants into water systems, which in turn has the potential to seep into drinking water.
According to the US Geological Survey, in 2005 roughly 43 million Americans – approximately 15 percent of the population – supplied their own drinking water and 99 percent of that came from groundwater.
In short, when ponds, streams, rivers, and lakes are polluted, it can seep into groundwater and has the potential to negatively affect a significant number of Americans who get their water from wells.
Studies have shown that millions of Americans are exposed to unsafe drinking water every year. This issue goes well beyond the highly publicized stories like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Here are the environmental rules Trump has repealed – or is fighting to repeal – that could affect drinking water in the US:
Ended regulation to protect streams and waterways from coal mining waste.
- Carlos Barria/Reuters
In February 2017, Trump repealed an Obama-era environmental regulation aimed at protecting streams and waterways from coal mining waste – the Stream Protection Rule.
The rule required surface mining activities to be kept at least 100 feet away from streams, which including the dumping of mining waste. By repealing the rule, Trump made it easier for coal mining companies to dump mining debris in streams.
Trump contended the rule placed unnecessary burdens on the coal mining industry, but environmental groups said its repeal increased health risks for rural communities by disregarding “basic clean water safeguards.”
Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, a state with a long history of coal mining, was staunchly opposed to the rule’s repeal.
He brought polluted well water from his district and challenged his GOP colleagues to try it, stating he’d vote in favor of rolling the regulation back if one of them did. Ultimately, no Republican lawmakers accepted Yarmuth’s offer, USA Today reported.
At the time, Yarmuth said, “This came from the drinking well of the Urias family’s home in Pike County, Kentucky.”
Yarmuth contended the rule was “one of the only safety measures that would protect these families from poisoned drinking water, higher rates of cancer, lung disease, respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, birth defects and the countless negative health effects that plague this region.”
Delayed a regulation on the level of toxic pollutants released by steam electric power plants
- Mike Stone/Reuters
The Trump administration has delayed the Power Plant Water Pollution Rule, which was finalized in 2015 under the Obama administration and regulated the level of toxic pollutants released by steam electric power plants.
“Among all industries regulated under the Clean Water Act, steam electric power plants contribute the greatest amount of toxic pollutants discharged to surface waters,” according to the Brookings Institution.
While Scott Pruitt was still administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), he moved to postpone compliance dates for aspects of the rule.
The rule is partially in effect, but the EPA under Trump has been sued by environmental groups over its efforts to delay portions of the regulation.
Ended a rule that required companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking
- Lucas Jackson/Reuters
The Oil and Gas Fracking Rule, finalized under the Obama administration in March 2015, was rescinded by the Department of the Interior under Trump in late 2017.
The Obama-era rule required companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking, the practice of pumping fluids into the ground at high pressure to free up oil or natural gas for extraction.
Fracking is a controversial practice that environmental groups and researchers have warned can contaminate groundwater, drinking water, and adversely impact people’s health.
Rolled back rules on the disposal of toxic coal ash
- Randall Hill/Reuters
In July 2018, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era regulations on the disposal of coal ash.
Coal ash is a toxic substance leftover from burning coal, containing contaminants such as mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. Arsenic is known to cause cancer.
The Trump administration did not completely scrap the Coal Ash Rule, but added an amendment giving power plants an extension of 18 months to use unlined coal ash ponds and sites near groundwater for dumping. Environmental groups said the rollback could negatively affect drinking water near the sites and threaten the safety of US families.
“The Trump administration is turning a blind eye to damage done to our drinking water,” Lisa Evans, senior counsel for the environmental law organization Earthjustice, told NBC News in July 2018. “This is aimed at saving industry money instead of protecting the public.”
Trump’s EPA justified the move by contending it would save utility companies up to $31.4 million per year in regulatory costs.
A joint study from the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice, released in March 2019, found 91 percent of US coal-fired power plants are contaminating groundwater with “unsafe levels of one or more of the pollutants in coal ash.”
“This is a wake-up call for the nation. Using industry’s own data, our report proves that coal plants are poisoning groundwater nearly everywhere they operate,” Evans said in a statement in early March. “The Trump Administration insists on hurting communities across the US by gutting federal protections. They are making a dire situation much worse.”
Scrapped a proposal to protect groundwater near uranium mines
- Pamela J. Peters/Reuters
The Trump administration in October 2018 scrapped a regulation proposed by the Obama administration in its final days to strengthen protections for groundwater near uranium mines.
The primary method for uranium extraction, known as in-situ recovery, “can contaminate groundwater if water containing uranium extraction byproducts flows into nearby aquifers,” according to Harvard Law School’s Environmental & Energy Law Program.
A 2012 study from Thomas Borch, an environmental chemistry professor at Colorado State University, found that uranium levels in a well in Wyoming were over 70 times higher after mining.
Borch found the uranium concentration in the well was 3.53 milligrams per liter. The EPA says 0.03 milligrams per liter is the acceptable maximum contaminant level of uranium in drinking water.
Research shows elevated levels of uranium in drinking water can increase risk of kidney damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ongoing exposure to uranium in drinking water can also increase a person’s estimated lifetime risk of cancer.
Pushing for a plan that would end a rule that protects roughly 60% of America’s bodies of water, including much of its drinking water
- Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
In December 2018, the EPA announced a proposal that would gut Obama-era clean water regulation from 2015 known as the Clean Water Rule.
The regulation, also known as Waters of the US (WOTUS), defined which streams and wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act.
The Obama administration established a broader definition of which waterways are protected to make streams and wetlands less vulnerable to pollution from an array of sources, including industrial facilities.
The Trump administration is seeking to narrow that definition, opening the door for ephemeral/intermittent or seasonal waterways to be contaminated with pollutants. “Ephemeral and intermittent streams make up approximately 59% of all streams in the United States,” according to a November 2008 study from the EPA.
Environmental groups have warned that Trump’s plan could affect the drinking water of over 115 million people.
David M. Uhlmann, chief of the environmental crimes section at the Justice Department from 2000 to 2007, said the Trump administration’s move disregards “basic science” and threatens “drinking-water supplies across the country.”
“This is a thinly veiled effort to slash water pollution protections that have long been embraced by both Republican and Democratic administrations,” Uhlmann wrote in a December 2018 op-ed for The New York Times.
Uhlmann added, “President Trump is once more playing to his base, this time to rural communities fearing greater regulation of the agricultural runoff that each year creates worsening dead zones in the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.”