The EPA’s chief listened to a business-heavy audience complain about his agency’s Clean Water Act regulations under former President Obama during a meeting in Orangeburg County on Monday.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt made the stop at a sod farm near the town of Cameron as part of a multistate tour designed to show how the Trump Administration is undoing some of the Obama Administration’s regulations that conservatives consider overreaching. He found a sympathetic audience in the event hosted by South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers, a fellow Republican. Among those invited to attend were farmers, power utilities, home builders and developers who worried they would have seen an increase in bureaucracy and regulations under the 2015 “Waters of the U.S.” Rule.
“What we’re doing is hearing from folks in the states,” Pruitt told a group of reporters in attendance. “Not associations in Washington, D.C., not 501 c(3)s and… other organizations which exist just to engage in advocacy. We’re hearing from people on the ground across the country that are being impacted by the rules we adopt.”
The “Waters of the U.S.” Rule is the name given to regulations announced by the EPA in 2015 which sought to clarify years of confusing agency decisions on what constitutes a navigable waterway under the agency’s purview. It clarified any tributaries with intermittent flowing water and ditches which “look and act” like tributaries are covered by federal pollution laws. It also established any water bodies within 1,500 feet of a regulated tributary and other water bodies outside of that range which are connected by surface water.
Conservatives and business groups fought the rule immediately and prevented it from ever taking it effect with multiple court stays. The Trump Administration moved to withdraw the rule this month.
Farm groups and developers said the interpretation was confusing and prevented many from investing in new projects because they were unsure if the potential wetlands impact could require new federal permits.
“We would’ve lost control of our own farm ponds, which could’ve potentially changed the way we’ve done business in a harmful way,” Titan Farms President and CEO Chalmers Carr said. “I potentially could’ve had to go through a permitting process to withdraw my own water from my own pond to put on my own crops.”
However, environmental groups criticized the invitation-only meeting, which they said presented only one side of the story. Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said the rule’s impact was exaggerated by its opponents.
“The Farm Bureau spent a ton of money to spread this rumor (the regulation) was going to cover every puddle and every ditch,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “And then they’d throw up their hands and say, oh, there’s all this confusion so we can’t do this.”
Pruitt defended the invitation-only nature when pressed, saying farmers and forestry groups have an incentive to ensure their operations do not impact the environment. “Farmers and ranchers were the first environmentalists. I think (that) question goes to an attitude out of Washington that seems to put industry and environmentalists against one another. And, frankly, when you think of private property owners and industry across the country, the ones that I’ve met largely… care about the water they drink and the air that they breathe.”
Besides Weathers, other South Carolina Republican elected officials in attendance included U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson and state Attorney General Alan Wilson.
The event was hosted at a farm reception hall owned by Patten Seed Chairman and CEO Jim Roquemore.