30th Anniversary Finds Clean Water
Act in Jeopardy Cat Lazaroff
Environment News Service
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.
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
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 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.
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
"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
"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
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
"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.
"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/