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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
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."
"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.
"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/