Three conservation groups have sued the Environmental Protection Agency over rule changes reducing state and tribal oversight of projects that may harm local waterways.
Taos-based Amigos Bravos joined the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Waterkeeper Alliance in filing a lawsuit this week against the EPA for revamping the Clean Water Act’s 401 section, which defines states’ authority in federal pollution permitting.
This lawsuit comes after a coalition of 21 state attorneys general, including New Mexico’s, sued the EPA last month over the agency’s rule changes, which went into effect July 13.
The changes most under fire limit the conditions that a state can impose on a project’s permit to protect waterways, tightens the time frame that data and public comments can be collected on a project and makes it easier for federal agencies to overrule the state.
“In the end we’re going to have less authority, less power and less voice for the local community … and less protection for our waterways,” said Frank Holleman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the conservation groups. “It’s an approach that no administration going back to the Nixon administration has ever attempted before.”
EPA officials said they don’t comment on pending litigation.
The revised rule will hit New Mexico hard because it is one of just three states with no delegated authority from the EPA to regulate polluted discharges into rivers, streams and lakes under the Clean Water Act, said Rachel Conn, projects director for Amigos Bravos.
So it’s even more important that the state can add a broad range of permit requirements to protect water ecosystems, Conn said.
The EPA’s new rule limits the state to imposing conditions on a specific source of pollution affecting water quality, she said. If a construction project also dumps silt into a tributary, which doesn’t hurt water quality but harms wildlife habitat, it doesn’t count, she said.
State oversight of discharges is mainly limited to those flowing into navigable waters, Conn said. The EPA recently changed the rule defining navigable waters, excluding as “ephemeral” storm-generated streams and tributaries that flow intermittently and not in regular seasons.
That disqualifies most of New Mexico’s waters from federal protection, she said. It also means the state will be tightly restricted in imposing limits on discharges, she added.
“It’s a one-two punch,” Conn said.
Holleman said the EPA’s new navigable waters rule was supposed to shift more oversight to the states, and now the agency is taking away much of that authority.
“The only unifying theme here is to reduce protections of the nation’s waters and to aid polluters,” Holleman said.
Under the rule change, the state can require that a company building a…