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Critics claim Trump golf courses would benefit from proposed clean water rule

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Waterfalls and a pond at the Trump National Golf Club Westchester. Photo via the club website.

A proposal by the Trump administration to relax a Clean Water Act rule could benefit the president, two nonprofit groups argue in a regulatory filing.

The organizations claim that 12 golf courses owned by the Trump Organization – including clubs in Briarcliff Manor and Hopewell Junction – would gain from Trump’s proposal to repeal and replace an Obama-era rule.

“The Trump Organization and President Trump would be direct beneficiaries of this proposal,” Raritan Headwaters Association of Gladstone, New Jersey, and Free Speech for People of Newton, Massachusetts, state in a letter opposing a new rule. They claim the proposed rule is a “potential violation of the U.S. Constitution’s domestic emoluments clause.”

The Obama administration enacted a rule in 2015 that was meant to clarify the definition of “waters” that can be federally regulated under the Clean Water Act of 1972.

The original law requires factories, power plants, farms, new housing developments, golf courses or anyone who discharges pollution into the “waters of the United States” to get a federal permit.

The rules are clear for major bodies of water and navigable waterways, but less clear with small wetlands or places that dry up seasonally.

The Obama rule sought to identify aquatic ecosystems that should be protected, such as wetlands and ponds in or near the floodplains of larger waterways.

It exempted isolated waters, such as puddles, ditches, irrigation systems and artificial ponds for livestock watering.

But rather than clarify, some farm and industry groups argued, the rule was a “power grab” that expanded federal control and imposed more compliance costs.

Trump campaigned against the Obama rule. His first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, suspended implementation. And in 2017, the president issued an executive order directing the EPA to replace the rule.

Trump’s proposed rule – titled, in part, as Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism and Economic Growth – would exempt more wetlands.

Free Speech for People characterizes itself as a nonpartisan opponent of public corruption that was formed when the U.S. Supreme Court relaxed campaign finance regulations in Citizens United v. FEC (Federal Election Commission). The mission of Raritan Headwaters is to protect the 470-square-mile Raritan Rivers region that encompasses Trump National Golf Course Bedminster.

Ronald A. Fein of Free Speech and Bill Kibler of Raritan Headwaters argue that the proposed rule will confer financial benefits on the president by relaxing regulations on golf course ponds, lakes and water systems.

Trump National Golf Club Hudson Valley, Trump National Golf Club Westchester and 11 more Trump-branded golf courses made about $208 million in revenue, according to the president’s 2017 financial disclosure form.

The emoluments clause prohibits a president from accepting any outside compensation. The nonprofit organizations want rule-makers to interpret the clause broadly. They cite a court ruling that states that the term “emolument” should “embrace and ban … profit, gain or advantage offered to a public official in his private capacity.”

A coalition of six organizations that represent golf course architects, builders, managers, superintendents, clubs and owners see the issue very differently.

“Golf courses are among the few sport facilities that are fully integrated into the natural environment,” their comment states. “Golf exists within and depends upon a healthy environment, including water quality.”

Golf course water features are designed to store storm runoff and provide water for irrigation. The Obama rule, the trade associations argue, would apply to almost all golf course water bodies and increase the costs of permitting, monitoring and mitigating pollution.

More than 600,000 public comments have been submitted to the EPA, and a quick analysis of a sampling conveys how the proposed rule has pitted industry against environmentalists, or the desire for less costly government oversight against the desire for greater safeguards against water pollution.

“Drinking water” appears 3,626 times in the comments; “pollution” 3,163, “habitat” 1,870. “Farms” or “farming appear 2,277 times, “power grab” 90, “golf” or “golf course” 85.

“Emolument” appears only in letters submitted by Free Speech for People and Raritan Headwaters.

The comments period closed last month. The final rule could be published in September. Implementation could take years, if there are legal challenges.

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