30th Anniversary Finds Clean Water Act in Jeopardy

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, October 18, 2002 (ENS) - On the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, environmental organizations warn that lax enforcement is still permitting dangerous discharges of water pollutants. The groups blame the Bush administration for weakening key regulations designed to protect and clean up the nation's waters, calling the administration's record the worst for clean water in the past three decades.


Almost half of U.S. waterways are too polluted for swimming or fishing. (Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Around the nation today, Bush administration officials and water experts will be talking about the accomplishments of the Clean Water Act, as well as the challenges that still lie ahead.

"Most Americans would agree that the quality of our water has improved dramatically over the past quarter century, although there is still much to be done," said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christie Whitman. "We are not only celebrating but re-committing to the Clean Water Act's goals of fishable and swimmable waters."

But many environmental groups say the Bush administration is actively undermining those goals, and allowing polluters to dump toxins into the nation's waterways. For example, the Bush administration has proposed cutting the EPA's enforcement staff for 2003, and weakened crucial Clean Water Act programs, including federal rules prohibiting the dumping of mining and industrial wastes into water bodies around the country.


American wetlands are losing ground to agricultural and urban development. (Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The administration is also working to revise the total maximum daily load (TMDL) program, which requires states to set limits on the amounts of pollution from runoff and other non-point sources that can be discharged into waterways. EPA data shows that 40 percent of the nation's waterways are still deemed unsafe for fishing and swimming.

"The Bush administration is pursuing plans to dismantle significant portions of the Clean Water Act just as the law turns 30," said Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel for the non-profit environmental law firm Earthjustice. "From gutting the program that guides the cleanup of polluted waters, to eliminating a 25 year old ban on dumping mining and other industrial wastes into wetlands and streams, to abandoning the national 'no net loss of wetlands' goal, this administration's actions pose the greatest threat to the nation's waters in three decades."

The latest and perhaps most far reaching Bush administration proposal to date, Mulhern said, was announced on September 19 when the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineer officials testified before a House committee that they have decided to reconsider what waters should be protected under the Clean Water Act at all.

The agencies said they now question whether tributaries of navigable waters, streams that periodically dry up, and wetlands next to these waters should receive Clean Water Act protections. Such waters have been covered by the Clean Water Act since 1972 and by the law's implementing regulations since 1975.


Wetlands that are isolated from navigable waterways, like this Wisconsin bog, lost federal protection under the Supreme Court decision (All photos courtesy Wisconsin Wetlands Association)
Administration officials claim that the new rulemaking is a response to a January, 2001 Supreme Court decision concerning "isolated" wetlands, and subsequent lower court rulings concerning streams and wetlands.

"Neither the Supreme Court ruling nor the majority of lower court rulings have suggested that any such weakening of Clean Water Act authority is warranted, let alone the sweeping proposal announced by the Bush administration," said Mulhern. "The Court's decision opened a crack in the door, but the Bush administration is kicking the door down."

"No other president in the last 30 years - Republican or Democrat - has ever proposed such a significant cutback to Clean Water Act protections," Mulhern added. "The goal of the Act - to make all of the nation's waters safe for fishing, swimming, and other uses - cannot be met if the majority of waters are cut out of the law's scope."

A new report released Thursday finds that while many improvements in water quality have been made in the past three decades, hundreds of polluters continue to violate the Clean Water Act and other federal regulations governing water pollution.


Development crowds a waterway in Galveston, Texas. (Photo courtesy USACE)
"In Gross Violation: How Polluters are Flooding America's Waterways with Toxic Chemicals" was released on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG). The report analyzes previously unreleased EPA data spanning January 1999 through December 2001, indicating that more than one in four - 28 percent - of major polluters violated legal limits for discharging chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer and other serious health effects.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), which obtained the information through a Freedom of Information Act request, found that more than 81 percent of U.S. polluters exceeded their Clean Water Act permit limits at least once in the three year period. On more on 1,562 occasions, major facilities reported discharging at least 10 times the legal limit for chemicals linked to serious health effects, and in 363 instances, reported exceeding 100 times the legal limits.

"Government records show that polluters regularly threaten public health and break the law - for highly toxic chemicals and at levels many times higher than legally allowed," said U.S. PIRG environmental health advocate Jeremiah Baumann. "It is unacceptable that with such a weak enforcement record, the Bush administration would propose cutting enforcement and weakening the law."

The Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA), a national trade association representing more than 280 publicly owned treatment works across the country, says the Bush administration also needs to invest more money in the nation's water infrastructure to help meet the Clean Water Act's goals.

"What enabled the Clean Water Act to be so successful was a strong federal funding infusion in the form of the construction grants program that helped communities across the country build sewage treatment plants," the association said in a release. "At its peak in the 1970s, the federal government was paying for 90 percent of wastewater infrastructure funding, a commitment that has since dwindled to under 10 percent."

san clemente

Runoff from developments like these houses along San Clemente Creek in California send tons of pollutants into waterways. (Photo by Robert Campbell, courtesy Army Corps of Engineers)
Earlier this month, the EPA released an analysis concluding that funding for water and wastewater infrastructure faces a $534 billion shortfall over the next two decades. Water industry experts said the report shows that a massive infusion of federal funding will be needed to help protect public health and the environment from reductions in water quality.

"Without a long term federal recommitment to clean water, the nation risks losing the water quality gains for which it has worked so hard over the past 30 years," AMSA stated.

Today, President George W. Bush issued a proclamation recognizing the next year, starting today, as the "Year of Clean Water."

"The Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 have helped our citizens enjoy one of the safest and cleanest water supplies in the world," Bush stated. "We renew our commitment to building on these successes and to developing new approaches and partnerships to meet our environmental challenges."

Skeptical environmental groups said the Bush administration must make real policy changes to support the letter and the spirit of the Clean Water Act and avoid undermining the law's undeniable successes.


Agricultural runoff can carry fertilizers, including traces of antibiotics and hormones, into waterways. (Photo courtesy EPA)
"The Clean Water Act has had many successes, but 30 years after embarking on this program to make all of the country's waters clean enough to swim and fish in, a whopping 45 percent of waters are still too dirty to comply," said Earthjustice's Mulhern. "Congress and the public need to tell the Bush administration to cleanup these polluted waters instead of redesigning new rules that will make the other 55 percent dirtier."

"Now more than ever, on the Clean Water Act's 30th Anniversary, the Bush administration should act in the best interest of the environment and public health and hold polluters accountable to the letter and spirit of the law," concluded U.S. PIRG's Baumann.

More information on the 30th anniversary and the Year of Clean Water is available at: http://www.epa.gov/water/yearofcleanwater

Another perspective on the history and future of the Clean Water Act is available from the nonprofit Clean Water Network at: http://www.cwn.org/