U.S. Water Polluters Not Punished
Article courtesy of the Environmental News Service
October 22, 2001
DC, - More than one in four - 26 percent - of the
nation's largest industrial, municipal and federal facilities
were in "significant" violation of the Clean Water Act
at least once during a recent 15 month period, a new report
The report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group
(PIRG) describes shortcomings in the monitoring of water
pollution and efforts to deter polluters. At the most
basic level, the government, including both state agencies
and the U.S. EPA, have failed to properly pursue and punish
The annual report shows a drop in the number of significant
polluters since last year, when U.S. PIRG documented that
almost 30 percent of major facilities were in serious
violation of the Clean Water Act. But this year, there
is an important difference - the report, "Polluters' Playground:
How the Government Permits Pollution," comes just weeks
after the Bush Administration proposed slashing the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency's budget for environmental
"It is outrageous that the Bush administration is proposing
to slash enforcement budgets when more than one in four
polluting facilities are breaking the law," said U.S. PIRG
environmental advocate Richard Caplan. "We need clean water
now, and we have to start by requiring polluters to obey
When Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972, there
was a visible water crisis that made a compelling case
for action. Pollution in the Cuyahoga River caught on
fire in 1969, and a spill off the coast of California
left millions of gallons of oil along the coastline.
The goals of the act were to return all waters to fishable
and swimmable conditions by 1983 and to eliminate the
discharge of all pollutants by 1985. Now, almost 30 years
later, 40 percent of U.S. surface waters still do not
meet the fishable and swimmable standard.
There have been over 36,000 beach closings and advisories
since 1988, and in 1999, 48 states issued fish consumption
advisories because of high levels of dangerous chemicals.
To learn the source of these continuing pollution problems,
U.S. PIRG analyzed the behavior of major facilities nationwide
by reviewing violations of the Clean Water Act between
October of 1998 and December of 1999. The violations were
recorded in the U.S. EPA's Permit Compliance System database,
which is not a public record. U.S. PIRG obtained the data
under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The major findings of the report include:
than 26 percent of the 1,730 major facilities examined
were in Significant Non-Compliance with their Clean
Water Act permits for at least one quarter during the
15 month period.
major facilities were in Significant Non-Compliance
with their water pollution permits during the entire
15 month period.
the 42 industrial facilities in Significant Non-Compliance
for the entire 15 month period, EPA records indicate
only one received a fine over the past five years.
10 states with the greatest number of major facilities
in Significant Non-Compliance were Texas, Ohio, New
York, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Florida,
Missouri and Indiana.
10 states with the highest percentage of major facilities
in Significant Non-Compliance were Utah, Tennessee,
Ohio, Vermont, Missouri, Oklahoma, Alabama, Rhode Island,
Nebraska and Indiana.
The continued dumping of hundreds of millions of pounds
of toxic chemicals into waterways and the significant
violation of the Clean Water Act by almost 1,700 large
facilities stems from several specific policy failures,
U.S. PIRG argues. Governments, both state and federal,
have do not pursue and punish polluters.
Meanwhile, the courts have eroded citizens' ability to file
suits in order to enforce the Clean Water Act. In addition,
regulators have failed to progressively lower permitted
amounts of pollution in order to move toward the zero discharge
goal of the Clean Water Act.
One out of every four facilities is operating on an expired
The Bush administration has attempted to justify proposed
cuts to the EPA's enforcement budget by arguing that states
are better suited to carry out enforcement activities.
But as the U.S. PIRG report details, many states are already
failing in this task.
To bring about consistent compliance with permits and
move toward the zero discharge goals of the Clean Water
Act, U.S. PIRG recommended the following:
tougher penalties. Penalties should be set high enough
to remove any economic incentive for polluters to break
the law and to deter lawbreaking in the first place.
This approach has proved successful in New Jersey, which
passed a tough Clean Water Enforcement Act in 1990 that
helped to reduce the state's ranking among states in
terms of percentage of facilities in Significant Non-Compliance
citizens full access to the courts. Obstacles to citizen
suits should be removed, including the current rules
that bar citizens from suing federal facilities.
the public's right to know. U.S. PIRG says the public
should have greater access to information about enforcement,
including the requirement of submissions of comprehensive
data by facilities that discharge into waterways and
easy accessible of that data through online Internet
whistleblower protections to extend the statue of limitations
for protection of employees that report illegal activities
by their employers.
Last year, Representative Frank Pallone, a New Jersey
Democrat, introduced legislation that would accomplish
most of the recommendations made by U.S. PIRG, and he
is expected to reintroduce the bill in the current Congress.
"We urge Congress and the President to listen to the
public's demands for clean water," said Caplan. "The Administration's
proposed cuts to the EPA's enforcement budget take us
in the wrong direction at the wrong time."
The U.S. PIRG report is available at: http://www.pirg.org/