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.
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