Trump administration set to relax Obama-era water protections: report

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump pauses while delivering remarks at the Project Safe Neighborhoods National Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S., December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration is set to reduce the number of federally regulated waterways protected under the U.S. Clean Water Act in a bid to help the energy and agriculture industries, according to a media report on Friday.

The Environmental Protection Agency will propose altering the definition of what qualifies as "Waters of the United States" under the regulation to remove streams that flow only after rain and wetlands unconnected to larger waterways, news outlet E&E reported, citing a document.

The change could open the door to additional pollution in some water bodies from industries including oil drilling, mining, and agriculture by removing them from federal oversight.

The E&E report said the EPA would make the proposal on Tuesday. An EPA official was not immediately available for comment.

Environmental groups slammed the upcoming move, saying it was "destructive." It was hailed by groups representing farm interests, who said the agriculture community long needed clarity on the rule.

"Part of our problem with the 2015 rule was nobody knew how to interpret it, it was so broad and overreaching," said Don Parrish, senior director for congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau. "We think a better rule is one that defines clearly (waterways) but yet give the farmers the opportunity to understand how to comply," he said.

Since taking office in January 2017, President Donald Trump has rolled back Obama-era environmental and climate protections to maximize production of oil, gas and coal.

On Thursday, the administration proposed weakening two other Obama administration environmental rules to help the energy industry - including one that had blocked drilling and mining in a bird habitat and another that required new coal-fired power plants to reduce carbon emissions.

"If reports are accurate ... this is a sledgehammer to the Clean Water Act," Geoff Gisler, a lawyer at the Southern Environmental Law Center's Clean Water Program, said. "Out of all the anti-environmental attacks we have seen from this administration, this may be the most far-reaching and destructive."

The new actions follow an executive order by Trump in February 2017 that had directed the EPA to work toward rescinding the so-called WOTUS rule defining federal waterways under the Clean Water Act, issued under President Barack Obama in 2015.

The rule had pleased environmentalists, but stirred anger in the agriculture and energy industries, which argued it gave regulators too much authority and hampered development.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; editing by Jonathan Oatis)