Forty years ago, dumping pollution into private and public waterways in America was as common as bell bottom jeans and shag carpeting. Everyone, from citizens to corporations, saw lakes and rivers as a convenient place to deposit trash, sewage and wastewater.
Here’s a snap shot of where we were:
In 1969, bacteria levels in the Hudson River were at 170 times the safe limit. Also, record numbers of fish kills were reported in 1969 – over 41 million fish. This included the largest recorded fish kill ever – 26 million killed in Lake Thonotosassa, Florida, due to discharges from four food processing plants.
In June 1969, a floating oil slick on the Cuyahoga river, just southeast of Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames, causing significant fire damage to two key railroad trestles. The exact cause of the fire was never determined, but investigations pointed to a “discharge of highly volatile petroleum derivatives with a sufficiently low flash point to be ignited by a chance occurrence” – such as a spark from a passing train.
In July 1970, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s Bureau of Water Hygiene reported that 30 percent of drinking water samples had chemicals exceeding the recommended Public Health Service limits.
Then, something strange happened. Scientists and environmentalists told us that our lakes and rivers were dying. People started to realize that an America without safe, clean drinking water wouldn’t be a very nice place to live. We realized that we liked our lakes and rivers, and that recreation in or near bodies of water was a pastime we’d like to preserve for future generations.
Americans took action.
In 1972, Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, better known as the Clean Water Act. The bill was vetoed by then President Nixon, but overridden by a Congress tired of watching rivers catch on fire and raw sewage flushing into community waterways. For those like me, born after the Clean Water Act was ratified, it seems silly to think that there was a time we didn’t care what happened to our water.
But this story of triumph doesn’t exactly have a happy ending. Though it’s been 40 years, the Clean Water Act has never been fully or properly enforced. Even today, when we are more aware of the importance of environmental protection than ever before, there are those who would seek to eliminate this important law and go back to the days of flammable rivers and dying lakes.
In 2011, Republicans introduced the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, H.R. 2354. If passed, about 20 percent of the wetlands in the U.S. would not be protected under the CWA – allowing toxin discharges to flow through those unprotected waters; thus, affecting more than 117 million Americans that get water from these unprotected waterways. More recently, the House approved the Stop the War on Coal Act, H.R. 3409, a bill that would block the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other sources, and prevent rules on the storage and disposal of coal ash and limit Clean Water Act rules.
Even without these potentially damaging laws working their way through the corrupt legislative system, the Clean Water Act has never lived up to its potential. Some of that squandered potential is due to industry and political opposition, while most is due to an Environmental Protection Agency that lacks the backbone to do its job.
As Jon Devine details in his NRDC blog, the EPA could do far more to protect our national waterways, it just hasn’t exercised those rights. Why? Because doing so would mean disrupting some of the dirtiest and most politically entrenched industries in our nation: Big Coal, Big Agriculture, commercial fishing, and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
It’s also important to realize that while the Clean Water Act was a landmark achievement in 1972, a lot has changed since then. Polluters have become better at covering their tracks. New types of contamination have been discovered. As it stands, the Clean Water Act is toothless against these new threats.
“The Clean Water Act was a great piece of legislation when it was passed in 1972,” writes Todd L. Ambs, President of the River Network, “but this law in its current form will not enable us to achieve the physical and biological integrity goals that produce truly healthy waterways. It is time to consider amending the Federal Water Pollution Control Act again to bring it into the 21st century.”
Let your mind wander to 2052. The Clean Water Act, if it still exists, will be 80 years old. Will that be an America where it’s still safe to splash in the ocean, fish in local rivers, or take your canoe out into local lakes? Or will that be a country where coal-fired power plants are free to dump their toxic ash and wastewater without fear of consequence? Will our oceans be vibrant and teeming with life? Or suffocated to death by the runoff of pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste?
Just like 40 years ago, WE THE PEOPLE have the chance to decide what happens to our water. We have the power to demand new legislation that addresses new threats and an EPA that will enforce it. How? By caring. By getting involved with local groups taking action on local issues. By getting educated about companies who pollute our water. And most importantly, by voting for Congressional representatives who realize, like they did 40 years ago, that clean water is never a partisan issue.
If you’re not sure we can do it, or that we should even try, you’re not alone. The same uncertainty existed 40 years ago. And here’s what Senator Ed Muskie of Maine, one of the Clean Water Act’s chief authors, asked the country at that time.
“Can we afford clean water? Can we afford rivers and lakes and streams and oceans which continue to make possible life on this planet? Can we afford life itself?”
Those questions were never asked as we destroyed the waters of our Nation, and they deserve no answers as we finally move to restore and renew them. These questions answer themselves. And those who say that raising the amounts of money called for in this legislation may require higher taxes, or that spending this much money may contribute to inflation simply do not understand the language of this crisis.”
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