Obama administration issues rule to protect 49,000 miles of PA streams

Media Contacts

PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

Philadelphia, PA – 59 percent of of the state’s streams, including those feeding the Delaware River, Susquehanna River and Pittsburgh’s Three, will gain federal protections under a final rule signed today by top Obama administration officials. The measure restores Clean Water Act safeguards to small streams and headwaters that have been vulnerable to development and pollution for nearly ten years. 

“The Delaware, Ohio and Susquehanna Rivers are only as clean as the streams that flow into them,” said Adam Garber, Field Director with PennEnvironment. “That’s why today’s action is the biggest victory for clean water in a decade.”

By closing a loophole created by Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006, today’s rule returns Clean Water Act protections to streams that feed the drinking water sources for more than 8 million Pennsylvanians and one in three Americans. Millions of acres of wetlands, vital for flood control and filtering pollutants, will also again be shielded under federal law.

The court rulings had put small streams, headwaters and certain wetlands in a perilous legal limbo, allowing polluters and developers to dump into them or destroy them in many cases without a permit. In a four-year period following the decisions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had to drop more than 1500 cases against polluters, according to one analysis by the New York Times.

First proposed in March 2014, the joint rule by EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is backed by robust scientific review and has gained broad support across a wide range of constituencies. Mayors, brewers, kayakers, anglers, small businesses, and farmers – Congressman Matt Cartwright (Lackawanna) Congressman Brendan Boyle (Philadelphia), Victory Brewing Company, Trout Unlimited, the Pennsylvania Farmers Union–joined a throng of citizens to submit more than 800,000 comments in favor of the rule last fall.

“Over the past 40 years, the Clean Water Act has protected our rivers so everyone can enjoy fishing and swimming in them,” said Congressman Matt Cartwright of Lackawanna County (PA-17). “This rule will help clear up any confusion—ensuring that all our waterways are protected.”

PennEnvironment, among those pushing for restored stream protections for the better part of the last decade, helped gather 50,000 comments from Pennsylvanians and held more than 100,000 face-to-face conversations about the need to close the loophole in the Clean Water Act in the past year alone. 

Despite broad public support for restored clean water protections, oil and gas companies, developers, and other polluters have waged a bitter campaign against them. The U.S. House has passed multiple bills to block or severely weaken the rule, including one measure as recently as last week.

“Whether for drinking, recreation or brewing world-class beers, Pennsylvania’s waterways convey a vital public resource that impacts our collective health, welfare and industry,” said Bill Covaleski, Brewmaster and co-founder of Victory Brewing Company. “We applaud greater water protections, as well as by all who enjoy our ’12 ounce postcards from PA.”

While today’s action signaled the final chapter in the decade-long fight for small streams and headwaters, advocates warned today that U.S. Senate leaders were more determined than ever to use their authority derail the Clean Water Rule. On Tuesday, a key subcommittee adopted a measure by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) to thwart the rule, and the full Senate could take it up soon after the Memorial Day recess.

“Sen. Casey has sided with our rivers over the polluters before, and we need himr to do so again. Unfortunately Sen. Toomey has continued to side with polluters on this issue, threatening the health of the streams we fish and swim in,” said Garber. “Today the administration signed and sealed critical protections for our rivers and streams, but they simply won’t get delivered without Senator Casey’s continued support.”