Tribes and activists sue Trump's Environmental Protection Agency over weakened water rights

Lawyers for the plaintiffs say the lawsuit aims to block the EPA from 'allowing dangerous levels of pollution that would harm the health of families'


Louise Boyle
New York
Tuesday 01 September 2020 19:44 BST
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A group of tribal communities and environmental activists sued the Trump administration on Tuesday over its attempts to weaken clean water protections under one of the country's landmark environmental laws.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed rule changes to part of the Clean Water Act which would limit the power of states and Tribes in decision-making on pipelines and other fossil fuel projects on their lands.

The coalition said that the suit aims to block the EPA from "allowing dangerous levels of pollution that would harm the health of families".

"This rule change is being adopted explicitly to support the fossil fuel industry," a release said.

The parties to the lawsuit - Suquamish Tribe, Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Orutsararmiut Native Council, Columbia Riverkeeper, and Sierra Club - are represented by non-profit environmental lawyers, Earthjustice.

Chairman of the Suquamish Tribe and President of Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, Leonard Forsman, said in a statement: “In order to maintain the Suquamish Tribe’s values and traditions, we will take action to protect, maintain, and preserve our ancestral waters that have supported subsistence, cultural, and commercial uses since time immemorial. This rollback has a direct effect on our tribal community and the next seven generations or more."

Chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Anthony Sampson Sr, added: “Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe works incredibly hard to protect its tribal waters, adopting protective water quality standards over a decade ago. These changes that cut into the Tribe’s ability to protect its waters and fish harm us all.”

Section 401 of the Clean Water Act gives states and Tribes the authority to set parameters on federal projects that impact waterways and wetlands within their borders – or to reject them altogether. Some projects have the potential to slice through waterways with trenches, dam rivers or destroy wetlands. Communities have up to a year to voice their concerns on projects.

According to Earthjustice, the new Trump administration rule would artificially limit the scope of a review.

The proposed changes would also shift the burden to communities to show how a potential project would cause harm, instead of the emphasis being on companies and federal partners to illustrate how the water quality standards would be met.

It also "arbitrarily limits" the time that a state or Tribe has to review a project.

"It allows federal oversight of state and tribal determinations, signalling the death of the partnership between the federal government, states, and Tribes enshrined in the Clean Water Act," the legal team noted.

The Independent has contacted the EPA for comment.

Last April, President Trump signed an executive order instructing the EPA to make changes to the Clean Water Act.

Dozens of state attorneys general, Tribes, community and conservation groups objected to the rule change.

“This unlawful rollback from the Trump administration seeks to trample the rights of Tribes and states to review and reject dirty fossil fuel projects that threaten their water. We will keep fighting until our government puts people before polluters and protects clean water for every community,” said Earthjustice staff attorney Moneen Nasmith.

Sierra Club Senior Attorney Nathan Matthews added: “We filed this suit to stop the Trump administration from giving control of our water to the polluting corporations who put their profits over our health.

"Since Trump’s EPA is taking away states’ and Tribes’ ability to protect their clean water, we’re going to court to take it back."

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