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Republicans Seek to Strip States of Clean Water Authority; SD DENR Sec. Roberts Objects!

Republicans can’t figure out where they stand on federal environmental regulation. On the one hand, they’ve screamed for years that the Environmental Protection Agency shouldn’t regulate water pollution and instead should leave that oversight to states and tribes. But when they don’t like what states do, they come tromping in to repeal devolution and impose federal authority:

A federal proposal to streamline water-quality laws would “kneecap” Minnesota regulators and effectively remove their authority to protect drinking water, rivers, streams and wildlife from dozens of new projects each year, state officials have warned in a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The proposal, issued by the EPA this fall, is part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to roll back the reach of the Clean Water Act and speed up the approval of federal water-quality permits.

The rule change targets Section 401 of the law, which has granted broad authority to states and tribes over the last 48 years to make sure any federally approved project meets local water-quality laws.

Minnesota has used the provision a few dozen times a year, generally on large projects such as oil pipelines or PolyMet Mining’s proposed copper-nickel mine in northeast Minnesota.

The proposed changes are “akin to tearing up Section 401 and throwing it in the trash,” wrote Katrina Kessler, assistant commissioner for water policy and agriculture at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The changes will “directly harm state and tribal water quality,” Kessler wrote [Greg Stanley, “Minnesota Says New Federal Pollution Rules Would ‘Kneecap’ Water Protections,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 2019.11.23].

Republicans’ intent here is to stop states from blocking pipeline and other energy projects. Wyoming Senator John Barrasso is among the Republicans pushing to take away states’ authority over their own water quality, since he’s mad that Washington State used Section 401 to stop a rail project that would have helped ship Wyoming coal to Asia. Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth smells the Republican hypocrisy:

“It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the Trump administration only cares about states’ rights when it is to look the other way, allowing corporate polluters to destroy streams and pave over wetlands,” Duckworth says.

It’s not just states. Many tribes have also opposed the push by Republicans to upend the Clean Water Act, which Duckworth bemoans.

“I recognize the developers who fail to meet the requirements identified by states and tribes may be frustrated by denials in earning federal approval for a given project. However, silencing the voices and inputs of those Americans most directly impacted is the wrong approach,” Duckworth says [Matt Laslo, “Wyoming Officials Try to Tweak Clean Water Act for Coal,” Wyoming Public Media, 2019.11.22].

Oh, wait—maybe Republicans have figured out where they stand: they prefer pollution and profits to potable water. Contrary to their professed principles, Republicans will happily use big government to protect their preference.

But not all Republicans! Surprisingly, South Dakota Republican good-old-boy Hunter Roberts, currently occupying the office of Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, openly objects to his party’s polluter power grab. In a formal letter submitted during the EPA’s public comment period in October, Secretary Roberts told the EPA that the proposed changes to Section 401 “supplant the cooperative federalism to protect water quality that has existed since Congress passed the federal Clean Water Act“:

These changes are a poorly disguised effort by the federal government to severely limit the states and tribes’ efforts to enforce their water quality standards and to impose appropriate conditions on federally-issued permits.

…The proposed changes effectively ignore these fundamental wishes of Congress. As states and tribes take vastly different approaches to protect their waters, EPA’s attempt to promote a nationally-consistent approach interjects unwanted federal oversite to state and tribal programs.

While the goal of improving the nation’s energy infrastructure is certainly admirable, it should not come at the cost of curtailing the states’ and tribes’ Congressionally-authorized role in protecting the environment. South Dakota has already established streamlined permitting and approval processes with federal agencies. Short-circuiting our existing environmental protection frameworks at the cost of fast-tracking projects could lead to environmental and public health impacts to our citizens.

We stand ready to work with EPA to streamline the 401 certification process and address any valid concerns federal agencies may have. This rule is not the vehicle for those discussions. South Dakota opposes the proposed regulations and requests EPA rescind this rule [Secretary Hunter Roberts, letter to EPA, 2019.10.21].

Maybe Roberts is just looking ahead to the Biden/Warren Administration and thinking, Holy crap! We don’t want a functional EPA overruling South Dakota’s bowing and scraping to my Big Energy buddies!

But Secretary Roberts did cc his objection to our Congressional delegation. Let’s hope Thune, Rounds, and Johnson can see clear the brown smear from their Executive/Energy-obsequity and do what South Dakota wants: reject gutting Section 401 and leave intact the authority of states and tribes to keep their water clean.


  1. mike from iowa 2019-12-01 13:07

    Waste of time to expect any real environmental protections from this kremlin annex and EPA. Ain’t gonna happen, unless you consider protecting environmental corruptors and fossil, fuel industries from prosecution as a good thing.

  2. Donald Pay 2019-12-01 17:31

    This is more an attack on the public’s right to have input into these decisions, than it is an attack on state’s rights, at least in South Dakota. Roberts indicates in his letter that South Dakota has “streamlined” the process. That’s short for the state has made it more difficult for citizens to obtain information, provide information and/or contest these matters.

    What is clear is that the federal EPA under Trump wants no citizen in any locality to be able to attend a public hearing and present information that may impact anything that the Great Orange Father decides is in his political interest. In this case, it is probably related to his failed promise about expanding coal mining, but it has implications for a hell of a lot of other projects, too, including gold mines and uranium mines.

    States have always had the authority to set standards for their water quality. Indeed many state, including South Dakota, had rudimentary programs in this regard before the Clean Water Act was passed. This seems to be a flat out federal takeover of state’s rights. The real problem is many states, including South Dakota, rarely flex their muscles to preserve their state’s rights. For example, South Dakota has a truly gutless sell out provision in state statute that prevents standards any tougher than those set by EPA.

  3. Debbo 2019-12-01 20:45

    Tantruming Toddler hasn’t the maturity or fortitude to deal with having his plans thwarted, as we know too well. He planned to ram the Polymet Mine through upon taking office, but Minnesota has stuck to legal processes, with much statewide arguing. This is his plan to override a state that tries to care for its environment.

    Of course this dumb idea will hit California hard, and we know Tantruming Toddler hates them too, because they’re always several steps ahead of him and not afraid of him. Both things drive his diseased mind wild.

    The Polymet copper and nickel mine is planned for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area watershed. Polymet earnestly promises there will be no environmental disasters, but in fact, no mine of the type Polymet is planning has ever failed to fail. Every. Single. One. has produced an environmental disaster. Not only would the pristinely beautiful BWCA to destroyed, but the toxic mess would get into the Great Lakes too.

  4. o 2019-12-01 20:49

    Being brazenly pro-pollution has always seemed counterintuitive to me, but I guess that works for the GOP. Soon we can all be like Flint (or worse). I also never quite understand how blind adherence to profit allows any company to pollute at will. Corporate/business responsibility has to go beyond the bottom line to extend to social and environmental value; not that long ago, these were requirements for incorporation. Government regulation is the only way to ensure that happens.

  5. Robert McTaggart 2019-12-01 22:08

    Good news, Debbo.

    If you want more renewables, you need more copper and nickel. So you can either have more renewables and deal with the environmental issues (which means higher costs), or not have any renewables.

    I don’t think building renewables but letting an environmental disaster occur elsewhere is a solution. That is just as bad as generating a lot of energy we don’t need, sending it somewhere else, and letting somebody else deal with the intermittency.

    Oops…we are doing both of those things today! China mines a lot of our minerals, and we push the excess renewable energy on other people to deal with (California in particular will do this more with solar).

    It is not a bad outcome to have more renewables in Minnesota, and have Minnesota more in charge of its own life cycle issues. In this case, we can have the Thanksgiving Dinner, we just have to do the clean-up too.

  6. Debbo 2019-12-01 22:30

    Mac, the problem isn’t that they want to mine copper and nickel. It’s not that they want to mine it there. The problem is that they want to process it there. They could do the processing about 50-75 miles away out of that watershed and we’d all be happy. Polymet refuses to consider that solution.

    And Mac, I don’t care to be talked down to like I’m no brighter than Idiotic Imbecile. I’m well aware that certain metals are required and that to acquire those metals they must be mined.

  7. Debbo 2019-12-01 22:52

    Daily Yonder shows that most Midwestern states have more clean energy workers than fossil, except North Dakota. Even SD is far ahead on clean energy workers. Clean energy is good for the environment and the economy. As usual, the GOP and Dimwitted Dunce are wrong again.

  8. Robert McTaggart 2019-12-01 23:11

    Sorry, your claim of another location being OK was not included in your previous post.

    I respectfully disagree with you on one more thing….I don’t think you will be perfectly happy with that solution. The processing will still need to be done somewhere, and there will be water involved.

    Neither site is inherently better than the other…both will have their own set of environmental impacts. But we can address and reduce those impacts the best we can at either location.

    I would assume that they want the processing to be done closer to the mining to reduce various costs and issues with hauling materials.

  9. Robert McTaggart 2019-12-01 23:15

    Which form of clean energy generates more jobs per kilowatt-hour than solar or wind?

  10. Debbo 2019-12-01 23:33

    It will not be a perfect solution, but there is no perfect solution. It is a far superior solution to Polymet’s plan to directly pollute the BWCA and Great Lakes. There’s no hope to mitigate any damage at their preferred processing site. At the other site there is.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2019-12-02 06:20

    The point here is not the usual exploding renewables debate. The point here is that Section 401 allows states and tribes to respond to unique local needs and constituents’ wishes. If they are more amenable to copper and nickel mining, they can streamline the permit process. If they are like South Dakota and want to capitulate to Big Coal or Big Copper or whoever is coming to rape the land for short-term, unsustainable profit… well, heck, they have that option, and we can fight it out at the hearings and the polls. If they are like Debbo and her Minnesota neighbors and want to take extra steps to keep their 10,000 lakes clean, they can do that.

    No matter what energy source we use, we will all still need water. There is no alternative to H2O.

  12. Robert McTaggart 2019-12-02 08:38

    Water is the universal solvent, it has a very high heat capacity, and it is widely available. So it is no wonder why water is of industrial interest.

    Cory, don’t forget Big Wind and Big Solar on your list. Always great to hear that all corporations are bad…until they are your kind of corporation. And I don’t believe that those who are divesting from fossil fuels and investing in renewables are seeking to lose money on their investments in the long term.

    The wind and the sun are clean and free. What is required to convert wind and solar energy into electricity is NOT free….that imposes a set of environmental impacts that must be addressed. That includes the emission of carbon from our backup power.

    Thus it is in our long-term interests to help address the challenges associated with the life cycles of all forms of clean energy, regardless of where the life cycle impacts occur (last time I checked, Minnesota and China were both on planet Earth).

    Mining, recycling and disposal are simply on-going costs of doing business that must be included in the overall spreadsheet. I welcome the work that needs to occur to make renewables successful enough to call them sustainables.

  13. Donald Pay 2019-12-02 17:13

    One thing you can count on is that if there is a federal takeover on water, such as what is proposed, you will likely have states proposing bans and moratoriums involving any other permitting that might be required, so they can back down the feds. Or they might be closing roads needed to access certain pipeline sites or mine sites. States, tribes and citizens have lots of arrows in the quiver, if the feds try to outflank states or tribes on water issues. There are lots of legal maneuvers to shut down construction of a pipeline or a mine, if the state wants to play hardball, and that’s not including the police force simply not intervening when protestors take matters into their own hands. So, it might be best if the Trump EPA backs off trying to overstep federalism and tribal rights. They won’t win the battle in the long run.

  14. Debbo 2019-12-03 15:42

    There are actions Klueless Kristi can take, like this:

    “[Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Dem, issued an executive order for the creation of a Climate Change Subcabinet, comprising members from a variety of state agencies who will collaborate on the state’s response to the changing climate.

    “It will also see the creation of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Climate Change, which will feature 15 members appointed by the governor to advise the subcabinet.”

    Gov. Walz will listen to the groups and act where possible. Wouldn’t it be great news for SD to have a governor who acted similarly in defense of her state’s resources and future??

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