Progress and Unfulfilled Promise
The Clean Water Act is more than a quarter century old. When this landmark piece of environmental legislation was enacted, the country faced a water pollution problem of crisis proportions, epitomized by waterways so contaminated by toxic industrial wastes that they caught fire. Although the Clean Water Act has made strides in cleaning up some waters, the 1972 Act's goal of reducing pollution so that all U.S waterways are safe for swimming and fishing remains the unmet benchmark of water quality in the United States. Twenty-seven years later:
- 40% of our rivers, lakes, and estuaries are still too polluted for safe fishing or swimming.
- About one of every five major facilities in the U.S. is in Significant-Noncompliance with its Clean Water Act permit each year.
- Since 1988, U.S. ocean, bay, and Great Lakes beaches were closed, or advisories were issued against swimming, on more than 15,994 occasions.
- 47 states have issued health advisories urging only limited consumption of fish from their waters due to contamination caused by mercury, PCBs, chlordane, dioxins, and DDT and its byproducts which persist in the environment.
- Under the Clean Water Act's permit-to-pollute system, polluters legally discharged more than 1.5 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into our waterways between 1990 and 1994, according to the nation's toxic pollution reporting system, the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI). Because the TRI accounts for only about 5 percent of all toxic pollution in the environment, the total load of toxics in U.S. rivers, streams, lakes and bays over the past five years may be 30 billion pounds.
Thus, although U.S. waterways may no longer be catching fire, they remain unacceptably dirty. In fact, the threats to human health and the environment posed by toxic water pollution are more insidious than was once thought. Highly poisonous pollutants like PCBs, toxaphene, and DDT that were banned years ago, as well as organochlorines like dioxin that continue to be discharged in huge quantities, are now known to persist in the environment and accumulate up the food chain. Recent studies, posing serious risk of cancer, immune suppression, and reproductive harm.
Clean Water Under Attack in Congress
In the last Congress, our clean water protections faced unprecedented attack. In 1995, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Bud Shuster (R-PA) invited industry lobbyists into Congress to pen a Dirty Water bill that would have weakened nearly every aspect of the Clean Water Act. Although that bill passed the House within the first months of the 104th, the Clean Water Act remained intact when the most anti-environmental Congress in history closed its doors late last year, because U.S. PIRG and other groups mobilized a massive public outcry against the rollback of our clean water laws.
The chastened 105th Congress is unlikely to act quickly on reauthorization of the Clean Water Act this year. However, U.S. PIRG is on alert: bills have already been introduced in both houses of Congress to weaken protections for our precious remaining wetlands.
Recommendations For A Stronger Clean Water Act
U.S. PIRG strongly supports the following principles to strengthen the Clean Water Act:
1. Our public health and children's future must be vigilantly protected.
- We need to prevent toxic pollution before it occurs, by phasing out the most hazardous substances and reducing the use of other toxics.
2. The public has a right to know what is in our water and the fish we eat.
- We need uniform monitoring, testing, and posting of warnings at waterways where people swim and fish.
- We need accurate reporting on compliance with wetland and discharge permitting programs made easily available to the public.
3. Environmental cops must be on the beat to stop illegal water pollution.
- We need to catch illegal polluters and make them pay for their pollution.
- We need to strengthen the right of citizens to hold polluters accountable.
4. Water pollution must be dramatically reduced.
- We need enforceable measures to prevent polluted runoff from cities and farms.
5. Wetlands must be conserved to protect drinking water, habitat, and property.
- We need to stop the loss of wetlands, restore those that have been destroyed, and reform the nationwide "quick" permitting program.
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