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Latest Environmental Rollbacks Threaten Fish

By Betsy Emery, Organizer and Outreach Coordinator

O ver the past few months, the Trump administration has finalized two new rules that dramatically roll back freshwater protections under the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Both of the new rules are destructive to endangered fish populations, leaving them vulnerable to a variety of impacts including infrastructure projects and climate change.

National Environmental Policy Act

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires the federal government to review and disclose the environmental impacts of their proposed actions and projects, allowing the public and other stakeholders to weigh in on these impacts before determining whether to proceed. In essence, NEPA serves as a tool for transparency, which is critical for making the environmental decisions in the U.S. a democratic process.

Despite immense public pressure opposing a variety of infrastructure projects over the past 5 years, the new rules exempt large-scale federal infrastructure projects such as roads, pipelines, bridges and power plants from an environmental review process. Further, the new rules eliminate the requirement to assess how the proposed project would contribute to climate change. Instead of being required to assess the cumulative and indirect effects of a proposed project, environmental review is limited to analyzing “reasonably foreseeable” impacts — a legal term sure to be interpreted narrowly, which will in turn stunt the nation’s ability to meaningfully plan for the future.

“NEPA allows the people to hold the federal government accountable for protecting sensitive species and communities that rely on them,” Executive Director at Northwest Steelheaders Chris Hager said. “Rolling back NEPA is going to cause not only more conflict, but more uncertainty, in the effort to protect fish passage and habitat.”

Clean Water Act

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized the Clean Water Act Section 401 Certification rule, dramatically rolling back state and Tribal rights to enforce water quality standards within their jurisdictions. Section 401 of the Clean Water Act requires any facility that discharges pollutants into a waterway to obtain water quality certifications from the state that water is in. States then assess the environmental impact of a proposed operation and either approve applications that do not violate their state water quality standards, issue conditions to mitigate impacts, or deny applications that are in violation. In this way, states use the best available science to work with facilities to ensure that their operations mitigate and minimize water quality impacts.

However, under the new rules, States have only one year to review these water quality applications for potential approval. If they exceed this one year timeframe for review, the state waives their delegated authority to attach conditions to mitigate impacts. Speeding up this detail-oriented process is especially detrimental for waterways with at-risk fish species because often, there is limited data available for how projects will affect certain species, making it difficult to adequately assess the impacts of a project within one year. It can take multiple years to gather appropriate data about the impact of a large, complex facility and the mitigation measures that are necessary.

“These new rules will make it even more difficult to protect salmon by forcing states to make decisions without complete information on a shortened timeline,” said Hager. “This short-circuits states’ ability to understand and mitigate impacts from projects that will pollute our waterways and affect our fish.”

With both of the new rules, the Trump Administration is decreasing transparency and accountability around projects that impact our waterways. These rollbacks limit states’ abilities to protect their own waters in ways that reflect the values of the region. Removing freshwater protections is a major step in the wrong direction, severely limiting our ability to recover endangered salmon and steelhead species in the Pacific Northwest.

Both of these rules are certainly headed for lawsuits from a variety of environmental conservation organizations. In the meantime, you can take action with EarthJustice to protect NEPA.