Montana’s print press published a knot of guest op-eds earlier this summer criticizing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent adoption of regulations clarifying which of the nation’s streams and wetlands are covered by the federal Clean Water Act, the popularly adopted federal law that since 1973 has halted egregious industry pollution of drinking water sources and triggered cleanup of thousands of miles of streams nationwide.

The opinion pieces charged EPA with overreach, claiming the regulations will result in busybody EPA storm troopers busting landowners for drying up the tiniest of mud puddles.

Nonsense.

First, consider the messengers. It included a gaggle of Helena lobbyists, including representatives of Montana’s two worst pollution sources – hard-rock mining and producers and burners of coal. A lobbyist who claims to speak for all of Montana’s small businesses – but not really — penned another overwrought piece. More recently, something called the United Property Owners of Montana attacked the regulations. This tiny group’s mission is to privatize public wildlife – at least when it isn’t supporting Georgia’s wealthiest resident in his audacious attempts to eliminate the constitutionally affirmed right that allows Montanans to access our rivers and streams for recreation.

Fear-mongering is oxygen to these folks.

All the op-eds simply parroted generalities handed down by national lobbying groups. They offered zero evidence on exactly how the regulations would, say, protect mud puddles, or create catastrophic harm to farmers and ranchers. They simply regurgitated message-tested slogans, urging the public to tell U.S. Sen. Jon Tester to condemn the regulations, much like, disappointingly, other members of our congressional delegation and our attorney general have.

However, these critics apparently haven’t read or sought to understand the regulations. The attack on EPA seems instead to be part of reflexive vendettas against the very idea of regulation and the Obama administration.

Here’s the real story. The EPA regulations simply clarify the types of waters the Clean Water Act applies to. They are essentially the same waters, including headwater streams and valuable streamside wetlands, the law covered before Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 muddled interpretation of the law. In fact, the very interests now complaining about the regulations – the national Farm Bureau Federation, developers, mining corporations – are the same interests who demanded clarity from EPA.

It is baffling why some Montana agricultural groups have joined developers and industrial polluters in opposing EPA. The new regulations maintain and refine all the exemptions that agricultural producers and timber folks enjoyed before the Supreme Court acted. Tester, the only bona fide farmer in the Montana congressional delegation, indeed in all of Congress, went out of his way to verify that.

And, news flash for those worried about EPA: The agency does not implement most Clean Water Act provisions in Montana. The agency long ago ceded responsibility to Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality, which has a mixed record enforcing regulations and monitoring pollution — thanks in part to staff cutbacks and weakened laws instituted by Montana legislators in recent years on behalf of polluting interests.

Further, it is the Army Corps of Engineers, not EPA that has primary oversight of Clean Water Act provisions aimed at protecting streams and wetlands from stabilization and filling. Studies demonstrate unequivocally that the Corps rarely completely prohibits projects and, at most, requires only simple modifications. The alarming increase in bank stabilization along Montana’s rivers provides ample evidence. Landowners needn’t worry they’ll now be inundated by nosey EPA bureaucrats.

The Clean Water Act has served Montana and the nation well. Its reach is now being pilloried for two simple reasons: raw politics and polluter profits. As for EPA accountability, we should demand as much or more from the industries and politicians engaged in spreading fear about a tool that has kept drinking water clean, wetlands available to soak up floodwaters and headwaters full of trout.

Bruce Farling is executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited.

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