The Clean Water Act is meant to protect water from pollution. To Texas Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott, it’s another opportunity to sue the Obama Administration and the EPA.
In his latest attempt to drive a divisive wedge between anything environmental regulators do and anything he wants to do, on Monday Abbott demanded that the EPA back down from proposed updates to the Clean Water Act (CWA), threatening to sue if the proposal isn’t withdrawn. The EPA says the update, which has been proposed with the help of the Army Corps of Engineers, is needed to close loopholes that leave more than half of America’s streams and around 20 million acres of wetlands at risk of unchecked pollution and development. According to the EPA, it does not protect any new types of waters that have not historically been covered under the Clean Water Act and is consistent with the Supreme Court’s narrow reading of the Act’s jurisdiction.
According to Abbott, the “unlawful” changes would “erode private property rights and have devastating effects on the landowners of Texas.”
In Texas alone, more than 11 million people get drinking water from sources that depend, in part, on intermittent waterways such as arroyos or ditches. David Foster, who heads the Texas office of the advocacy group Clean Water Action, said that the George W. Bush administration argued that the intermittent streams didn’t qualify for protection, and in 2001 and 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court sided with polluters in water cases. The rule could be finalized early next year and would extend CWA protections to these important intermittent streams and certain areas in or near floodplains.
In his letter to the EPA, Abbott goes out of his way to express frustration with the “federal agencies’ explicit inclusion of ditches as waters of the United States:
Under this untenable and legally baseless definition, any landowner who has a ditch on his or her private property is at risk of having the federal government exert regulation over that ditch and impose burdensome and expensive federal regulations over dry land that does not remotely resemble any common-sense understanding of waters of the United States.
The EPA states that what the proposed updates do is for the first time provide clarity on how ditches should be regulated, and that the proposed rule “does not expand jurisdiction” of ditches. Abbott appears to have drawn his own interpretation about what should be permissible in the state of Texas — something he’s made a sort of cottage industry out of doing. As Texas Attorney General, Gregg Abbott has sued the Environmental Protection Agency 17 times and the Obama administration at least 31 times. Last year, Abbott was quoted telling a tea party group that on a typical workday, “I go into the office, I sue the federal government, and I go home.”
Abbott has been engaged with the EPA in a long-running legal debacle around air pollution issues. The debate has lost some momentum as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in favor of the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule meant to create a clean air standard for 28 states that generate greenhouse gas emissions traveling beyond their borders, including Texas. Abbott’s lawsuits against the federal government have cost Texans nearly $4 million.
“Abbott is using precious public resources to attack clean air protections for Texans,” Marcelo Norsworthy, a Texas-based transportation analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote in July. “His penchant for rhetorical flourish is in sharp contrast with his actual track record. He has racked up a long list of court losses in his ongoing effort to weaken environmental and public health protections.”
While Abbott spouts his claims that the federal government is infringing on Texas’s right to self-governance, he is also altering state laws to make it harder for residents to get access to information on the storage of dangerous chemicals. He recently ruled that government entities can withhold the locations of dangerous chemicals listed in state records to protect the public from terrorism or other threats. This coming just a year after 15 people were killed and 2016 injured at a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.
Abbott would be an appropriate successor to current Gov. Rick Perry when it comes to environmental issues and maintaining an acrimonious back-and-forth with the EPA. In his book, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington, Gov. Perry wrote that “Texas already had established water- and air-pollution programs before Congress inserted itself with the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.”