In the unsettling exposé What Lies Upstream, investigative filmmaker Cullen Hoback travels to West Virginia to study the unprecedented loss of clean water for over 300,000 Americans in the 2014 Elk River chemical spill. There he uncovers a shocking failure of regulation from both state and federal agencies and a damaged political system where chemical companies often write the laws that govern them. While he's deep into his research in West Virginia, a similar water crisis strikes Flint, Michigan, revealing that the entire system that Americans assume is protecting their drinking water is fundamentally broken.
In January 2014, West Virginians noticed that their tap water had a peculiar smell. It was soon discovered that a mysterious chemical, MCHM, has leaked into the Elk River near Charleston from a damaged tank at a nearby Freedom Industries chemical plant, poisoning the drinking water supply for nine counties - nearly half of the state's citizens. Hoback - whose interest was piqued by family ties to the state and a desire to understand why the contamination happened — embarks on an investigation that sends him down a rabbit hole of an unimaginable scale.
DONALD TRUMP HAS EMASCULATED THE EPA
EPA Blocks Clean Water Rule to Replace With 'Industry-Friendly' Alternative
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put a two-year suspension on the Clean Water Rule, an Obama-era policy defining which waters can be protected against pollution and destruction under federal law.
Last year, President Trump declared the 2015 law, also known as Waters of the United States (WOTUS), "a horrible, horrible rule," tasking EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to replace it with a looser and more "industry-friendly" definition, the New York Times reported.
WOTUS was supposed to take effect in the coming weeks after the Supreme Court decided last month that cases regarding the matter should be heard by district courts. However, Pruitt's action on Wednesday halted the rule from implementation.
"Today, EPA is taking action to reduce confusion and provide certainty to America's farmers and ranchers," Pruitt said. "The 2015 WOTUS rule developed by the Obama administration will not be applicable for the next two years, while we work through the process of providing long-term regulatory certainty across all 50 states about what waters are subject to federal regulation."
The 2015 rule protected large water bodies like lakes and rivers but also listed smaller waterways such as streams, ponds and wetlands for federal protection.
The EPA boss is now crafting its own Trump administration version, which according to the New York Times, "is expected to include much looser regulatory requirements on how farmers, ranchers and real estate developers must safeguard the streams and tributaries that flow through their property and into larger bodies of water."
The decision to withdraw and replace WOTUS was advocated by industry groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Petroleum Institute, as well as Republican politicians and farmers, ranchers and real estate developers who viewed the rule as an infringement on property rights.
"The Obama administration's outrageous Waters of the United States rule would have put backyard ponds, puddles, and farm fields under Washington's control," said Senator John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "Today's action will give Wyoming's ranchers, farmers, small businesses, and communities clarity."
But environmental groups worry that the move will allow uncontrolled pollution and destruction of our nation's rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands.
"Without the Clean Water Rule's critical protections, innumerable small streams and wetlands that are essential for drinking water supplies, flood protection, and fish and wildlife habitat will be vulnerable to unregulated pollution, dredging and filling, said Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers.
"Healthy rivers and streams are vital to our communities and economy, and the health of millions of Americans. President Trump and EPA Administrator Pruitt want to throw away carefully crafted safeguards that were based on strong economic arguments, sound science and broad public support," Irvin said. "We won't let that go unchallenged."
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced Thursday he will lead a multi-state lawsuit against the Trump administration for suspending the Clean Water Rule.
He tweeted that the Trump administration's suspension of the Clean Water Rule was "reckless and illegal."
"The Clean Water Rule is a common sense application of the law and the best science to protect our waters," Schneiderman said. "The Trump Administration's suspension of these vital protections is reckless and illegal. That is why I will lead a multi-state coalition that will sue to block this rollback in court."
The Hill reported that the Natural Resources Defense Council has also pledged to sue. The Sierra Club and Earthjustice may also file suit.