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The EPA removes federal protections for most of the country's wetlands

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Environmental Protection Agency has removed federal protections for most of America's wetlands. The rollback is a response to a Supreme Court decision that restricts the EPA's power to regulate waterways under the Clean Water Act. For more on what these changes mean, let's bring in Ariel Wittenberg of E&E News. That's a news outlet that focuses on energy and the environment. Good morning. Thanks for joining us.

ARIEL WITTENBERG: Thank you.

MARTIN: So let's just go back and, if you wouldn't mind, set the table and tell us, what exactly did the Supreme Court decision say about what the EPA can and cannot do to protect wetlands from development?

WITTENBERG: Absolutely. So this is part of their decision in Sackett v. the United States. And the five conservative justices ruled that basically the way we've been deciding which wetlands to protect is wrong, and only wetlands that are practically part of bigger rivers and streams deserve protection. So the Biden administration does not want to be removing these protections, but they have to do it to comply with the court. And a really important point here is that this decision wipes out protections that have been in place since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. So a good point of comparison is that when the Trump administration rolled back wetlands a few years ago, even that rollback regulated some wetlands that are now no longer protected, thanks to the Supreme Court.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense of how much land area or how much area is affected by this?

WITTENBERG: We know that it's the majority of wetlands in the United States. I mean, something that might surprise people is that, scientifically speaking, many wetlands are not actually very wet or they're not wet a lot of the time. So you have wetlands that dry out during part of the year, like during the summer, or you have wetlands that might only be wet during high tide or after heavy rains. And none of those are protected anymore. A lot of rivers and streams also do have wetlands right next to them or almost in them. So those are the wetlands that will still be protected. But the majority of wetlands are not really part of larger waterways. And so under this rule, even if there's just a foot of dry land between a swamp and a river, the swamp is not protected anymore.

MARTIN: Do we have a sense of who stands to gain from eliminating these wetlands protections? And also, of course, you want to know the other side of this. So what could happen to the ecosystem and to adjacent communities when these protections are removed?

WITTENBERG: Absolutely. So obviously, environmental groups are not pleased with this. Wetlands, of course, are important habitat for a lot of animals, but they also have considerable benefits to people. They can act as filters and sponges and help remove pollution from water. And they also absorb flood waters, which is obviously particularly important in this age of climate change. Homebuilders, developers, oil and gas industry - those are the folks who are winning here.

It - people maybe don't realize, but if you want to build something in federally protected wetlands, you actually can still do it. But you have to pay to restore wetlands that are similar nearby so that the ecosystem doesn't lose those benefits. So when these areas are no longer protected, we're going to be losing some of those functions of water filtration and absorption because the developers, you know, are just able to destroy these wetlands. Those functions aren't being replaced anymore.

MARTIN: That is Ariel Wittenberg of E&E News. And, once again, that's a news outlet that focuses on energy and the environment. Ariel, thanks so much for joining us and sharing this reporting with us.

WITTENBERG: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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