Image used by permission Doug Stewart / via Flickr.

A new proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would drastically reduce the number of waterways that fall under federal protection. Environmental groups say these new rules could leave roughly 49,000 miles of rivers and streams across our state vulnerable to contamination.

“These streams feed waterways like the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio, and help provide drinking water to eight million Pennsylvanians,” says Ashleigh Deemer, Western Pennsylvania director for PennEnvironment. “It defies common sense, sound science and the will of the Pennsylvanians.”

Here are details on the EPA proposal unveiled this week — one of many rollbacks of environmental protection that the Trump administration has pursued across a wide variety of sectors despite scorn from abroad and natural disasters linked to global warming happening at home.

“This proposal clearly limits ‘waters of the United States’ under the Clean Water Act to those that are physically and meaningfully connected to traditional navigable waters,” the proposal states.

Deemer points out that “the health of the Allegheny depends on countless creeks and streams like the Mahoning and Redbank Creeks that feed it, and the wetlands that filter out pollution.” By stripping federal protections from these streams and wetlands, the new proposal “would put the Allegheny — and our drinking water — at risk.”

This rollback would replace the 2015 Clean Water Rule.

After analyzing approximately 1.2 million comments from the public, an environmental analysis included in the proposal for that 2015 regulation found that “indirect incremental benefits are expected to exceed indirect incremental costs.” Though there was some estimated increase in permitting and regulatory activities, the environmental analysis stated, “the benefits represent the public’s willingness to pay for the preservation of wetlands.”

This new proposal also offers an analysis of the economic impact of the rule changes, but there is no separate environmental impact document included.

But while the spree of deregulation shows no signs of abating at the federal level, there is notable progress on strengthening environmental standards coming from the state capital.

On Dec. 13, two days after the EPA’s proposed changes to the Clean Water Act were released, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) unveiled a new proposal that would expand the more stringent emissions requirements for new natural gas facilities to every natural gas site in the state.

“The proposal to bring thousands of existing oil and gas facilities under sensible safeguards will help ensure that communities across the state enjoy cleaner, healthier air, and serves as a crucial backstop against efforts in Washington to undue core climate protections,” says Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Governor Wolf’s leadership on methane and his recent victory at the polls,” Krupp says, “confirm once again that Pennsylvanians want sensible protections from oil and gas pollution.”

While the DEP’s announcement was applauded by many environmental groups in Western PA, some say it doesn’t go far enough.

“Methane pollution controls are critical in the fight against climate change, which is why the PA DEP should strengthen the proposed methane pollution controls by building and improving upon the draft rule,” says Jacquelyn Bonomo, president and CEO of PennFuture. She described the proposed rule as “a critical step in what should be a comprehensive approach to addressing emissions from thousands of existing sources of natural gas infrastructure in Pennsylvania.”

Even with significant Democratic gains in the recent state elections, the legislature remains dominated by anti-regulation Republicans, and Governor Tom Wolf has long been an advocate for expanding the oil and gas industry, making the chances of passing more ambitious environmental policies sought by many progressives fairly remote.

Still, some environmental groups are optimistic that 2019 will bring a more favorable legislative environment.

Long-time environmental advocates in the state legislature like Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh), Wayne Fontana (D-Brookline) and Jay Costa (D-Forest Hills) will be joined in the coming year by incoming progressive candidates like Lindsey Williams, Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, who made environmental issues a key issue of their campaigns.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.