After Weeks of Fake Outrage Over East Palestine, Republicans Push to Weaken Water Protection
The Ohio train derailment story is also a story about water pollution.
Republicans have spent weeks criticizing the response to the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, lobbing attacks at any target close enough for something to stick. Seldom have they directly confronted the clear-as-day culprit: corporate-bought deregulation. The charade has now hit another milestone, as Republicans line up behind a party-wide push to deregulate water protection in the United States.
On Tuesday, the Republican-led House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee voted to reverse a Biden administration rule on water protection—which could affect communities contaminated by disasters like the one in East Palestine.
In 2015, the Obama administration announced a rule that expanded the definition of what kinds of bodies of water can be covered under the Clean Water Act, the now 50-year-old law tasked with overseeing water pollution and protecting the integrity of the country’s waterways.
In 2020, the Trump administration rolled back Obama’s changes, letting polluters off the hook and leaving regulators with less jurisdiction over protecting waterways. The approach limited federal protection to cover only “permanent” bodies of water and not other smaller but still impactful waterways, like streams of water that flow only part of the year. As a result, Trump’s rule deferred to states to determine what would and wouldn’t be protected by the Clean Water Act. In a case like Ohio, where the local government has been slow to respond to the contamination of water, such limits could make communities worse off.
In January, the Biden administration issued a rule overturning former President Trump’s limited scope of water protection, instead moving toward Obama’s more inclusive framework. Biden’s rule would allow waterways or wetlands that display a significant connection to more established waterways to be regulated. Biden’s water rule also aims to set a “durable” standard that more concretely defines when a waterway in question “significantly affects the chemical, physical, and biological integrity” of other already-established protected waters.
In East Palestine, the train derailment implicated numerous scales of waterways—some that interlink with adjacent smaller streams and wetlands. Contaminated local stream Sulfur Run flows into nearby stream Leslie Run, which flows into the nearby Bull Creek, which flows into the North Fork Little Beaver Creek, which flows into Little Beaver Creek, which empties, finally, into the Ohio River.
Still, scores of Republicans—lawmakers in Congress, state attorneys general, and Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices—are threatening to make it harder for the federal government to protect waterways.
On February 2, just one day before the East Palestine derailment that polluted numerous community waterways, all 49 Senate Republicans and 152 House Republicans signed on to a challenge against Biden’s rule, clamoring to deregulate water protection. And on February 16, 24 Republican attorneys general—including Ohio’s—announced a lawsuit against the EPA, complaining about federal overreach as the world witnessed Ohio bungling the protection of its own community’s waters and stubbornly refusing to accept federal help.
While Republicans push for the resolution over the coming weeks, they just need to win a simple majority vote. Biden will have the ability to veto the bill, and likely would not face a two-thirds overruling from Congress blocking his veto power. Republicans just aim to dare him to veto it, if they can pass it at all.
Meanwhile, Sackett v. EPA, a concurrent Supreme Court case, deals with the question of assessing waterways’ significance; the case was heard in October 2022 and the opinion is now pending. So the case of water protection is subject to both a conservative-stacked court and a broader Republican Party committed to dulling the government’s ability to act on behalf of its people.
Of note is that Biden’s rule is a self-proclaimed effort to achieve a “middle ground” between the Obama and Trump rules, and in fact mirrors much of the degree of regulatory jurisdiction settled before Obama’s updates. Nevertheless, Republicans still cannot stop themselves from hollowly railing against “federal overreach,” even while their counterparts are operating in a fairly conciliatory manner.
And still, Republicans pretending to care about the people of East Palestine and their waterways have signed on to a party-wide effort to roll back water protections. Their guiding mission to deregulate the economy trumps all sense, welfare of people or the environment be damned. All while companies like Norfolk Southern funnel millions into lobbying and buying favor from politicians, leading to as few as four Republicans collecting almost half a million dollars in less than two presidential election cycles.
The interconnectedness and fluidity of the flow of our water necessitates a granular and careful water protection, not a flippant and relaxed one; Republicans are working yet again to maintain the latter.