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What the Clean Water Act Means To Me


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18 October 2012, 5:34 AM
On the Act's 40th anniversary, how it touches lives across the country

Growing up just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, my siblings and cousins and I spent our summers swimming in Lake Erie. The water looked clear enough, and though I remember hearing about the invasion of zebra mussels, our greatest worries were the imagined creatures in the deep. We didn't know that just a few years before, the lake was popularly deemed “dead" because of the pollution it received from surrounding industries.

And in 1969 — the same year that our Cuyahoga River caught fire because of pollution, the same year that 59 out of 62 total Lake Erie beaches were pronounced unsafe for swimming — Time magazine pointed the national spotlight to our set-upon lake:

Some lake! Industrial wastes from Detroit's auto companies, Toledo's steel mills and the paper plants of Erie, Pa., have helped turn Lake Erie into a gigantic cesspool.

It was that river fire and that lake in Ohio that set the country ablaze in a movement for pollution controls and a national law to protect our waters. In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act by a two-thirds majority and with strong bipartisan support, and a Republican president signed it into law. And the act began its work in cleaning up our Cuyahoga and our beloved Lake Erie, so that in the decades following, people like me could swim and splash in it without harm to our health.

Growing up as a Cleveland girl, leaving home and telling folks where I was from was always humbling. “Oh yeah, ha! Didn’t your river catch fire?” and “The city whose river caught fire!” and “Even your lake was dead!” and “How does a lake die?” they’d say, incredulously.

That’s why, today, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, I am keenly aware of what this law has accomplished...and the challenges it still faces.

With respect to Lake Erie, though we’ve come a long way in cleaning it up, today we’re facing many of the same problems, some of which are threatening to return us to the lampooned and shameful days of our past.

Toxic green slime, or algae, is spreading through the lake with disturbing intensity, just as it did decades ago. Beaches are closing due to unsafe bacteria levels from sewage dumping in the lake, and fish and life that keep the lake healthy are dying. As a triathlete who swims in Lake Erie and other Great Lakes, this matters to me. And as a Clevelander at heart who cares about the economic stability of my hometown and the health of my family, it matters even more.

These clean water problems are not – and never have been – isolated to Ohio. Here in Washington, DC, where I live now, a host of similar problems plague this city’s past, present and future. More than 3 billion gallons of raw sewage are dumped each year into the Anacostia and Potomac rivers here in DC. The Potomac River was named the nation’s most endangered river this year, and I have chosen to skip swimming in this body of water.

Just a stone’s throw away from the polluted Potomac and Anacostia sit the hallowed halls of Congress, where many members and representatives are working to further weaken and gut the landmark Clean Water Act. Instead of working to uphold, enforce, and strengthen it to protect communities like Cleveland and Washington, DC, many politicians are attempting to write away our protections and flush away the Clean Water Act. They are not the first. These anti-clean water and pro-polluter efforts have been underway for a decade, and in that time we’ve watched many of our streams, lakes, rivers and wetlands lose the Clean Water Act protections that kept them clean for decades.

So, to echo the ridicule from my youth, how does a lake die? Well, it could die when pollution goes unchecked, and the nation’s leaders spend a decade dismantling the great Clean Water Act with a mess of loopholes, exemptions and weakening policies that favor industrial polluters over communities and public health. And that is exactly why we’re seeing these dirty-water problems making a comeback today.

If we don’t strengthen and defend our Clean Water Act as a nation, then we could find ourselves right back where we started: with burning rivers, dead lakes, unswimmable, unfishable beaches and creeks, undrinkable water, sickly communities and greater economic hardship.

After 40 years of the Clean Water Act, we should celebrate the strength of this great law. But we should also should be clear: Our waters aren't safe and clean just because. If they are swimmable, fishable, and drinkable, it is because of dogged defense of the Clean Water Act. And on this anniversary, let's resolve to work harder to promote clean water protections for all waters of the United States.

I've never traveled these areas mentioned yet after hearing what has happened in the past and now on the rise again I am deeply sadened and very worried about all waterways. What can ordinary citizens without the degrees and knowledgeable history you speak of do to help clean up this mess? After reading this and other reports from people outside the Cleveland area I am very interested in how anyone moves Congress to do anything, when even the President has to fight them for solutions. Everyone mentions that we can't allow this to happen but I for one would like to see anything that can prove to me how those responsible can be held accountable if at all possible. Where and who are the people that hold the power to move mountains? I love the Earth and all it has to offer but now I feel a sense of doom especially for our children and grandchildren. Is it getting close to no return? I'm frightened and I don't want to bury my head in the sand. Please assist me and others with the knowledge to help us all.

Water is a foundation for life. So it is simple, if you want us all to be more healthy....
Keep the water clean :-)

Directional Drills
I totally agree with your views about the Clean Water Act. The blog is so well written and each argument is really valid. Kudos!

Keep up your good work Earth Justice and Liz. The Earth DOES need a good lawyer and you blog, Liz, will hopefully stir people to hold their Congressional reps accountable!!

The river already has been polluted to the extent that hundreds of fish were found dead this year. The Clean Water Act should remain intact for our future generations.

The river already has been polluted to the extent that hundreds of fish were found dead this year. The Clean Water Act should remain intact for our future generations.

The river already has been polluted to the extent that hundreds of fish were found dead this year. The Clean Water Act should remain intact for our future generations.

I too am from Cleveland, and the river is in trouble again. Just this year hundreds of fish were found dead in River and as far as the public knows they haven't found a cause yet. It hasn't been reported in the news. However, its not just being dumped in the river it is also being dumped from creeks and streams that feed into the river that nobody wants to claim responsibilty for. The same thing can be said about trash and air pollutants that we are breathing in.

I am a lifelong resident of Cleveland - not one that ran off or one that was told how it was because they hadn't been born yet. I am so tired of this story being rehashed again and again. Let's get our facts straight. The Cuyahoga wasn't the only river that burned during that dark time. The Hudson River, for one, also had a record of burning. The only reason Cleveland's river happened to become the poster child of water pollution is that a photo happened to be taken and Time Magazine, having a slow news day, saw the photo and wrote a story.

Please stop perpetuating that myth that Cleveland was the only industrial city that polluted it's waterway to the point where it burnned. A little investigation would uncover the multitude of other cities that had rivers with enough pollutants in them to catch fire. It was an unfortunate,common occurence in other industry heavy cities. Let's stop dumping on Cleveland.

I, too am from Cleveland, I remeber very well how NASTY our river & lake was. I moved to Seattle in 1984 & everytime I said where I was from, they would reply, "Oh, that's where the river catches FIRE, out there by Lake DREARY!" I think the fact that I'm from Cleveland is the reason I'm so environmentally active, because I KNOW what can & will happen if we don't take care of our environment! And Revelation 11:18 says that when Jesus returns that He will "DESTROY those DESTROYING the earth!" So the Right Wing idiots who trying to undo the Clean Air & Water Acts & dismantle the EPA are the ones that scripture is talking about! And those same Repugnant/Teabagger/Nazi-talipublicans who are fighting against Obamacare are the ones who are going against Matthew 25: 31 thru 46 as well! Pretty strange that the very ones who thump the Bible the HARDEST seem to be the ones who are least aware of what's IN IT!

I, too, am a Cleveland girl--born and raised. I remember my parents taking my brother and I to the lakefront on Sundays. There would be local polka bands that would play on Sunday afternoons at the 55th Street amphitheater by Lake Erie. As more and more industry came in, the demise of the lake and the Cuyahoga River became a sad joke of the nation. Cleveland became the "mistake on the lake." And now, not only our lakes and rivers but the ocean, as well are becoming sewers for everything from chemicals, sewage, farm runoff, algae, plastic and more. THIS MUST STOP! It is up to all of us to elect officials who enforce regulations and hold polluters accountable. The earth has a tremendous capacity to clean itself, but only if we do not destroy the delicate balance of our environment. We must defend the Clean Water Act!

The problem in Cleveland with the Cuyahoga is much deeper than anything that the Clean Water Act can remediate. The one-time Standard Oil refinery site along the east bank of the Cuyahoga north of the old Republic/LTV steel mill at one time housed the largest oil refinery in the world. The site still sports thousands of miles of underground oil, kerosene, gasoline, and diesel fuel piping that has now had more than 60 years to deteriorate, and some of which is well over a century old too. The 1969 Cuyahoga fire was pretty small compared to one in the late 1980s that burned-up a couple of lake freighters as well as the Jefferson Ave bridge and a couple of adjacent buildings too.

As that buried piping continues to deteriorate without maintenance, there are obviously going to be more leaks, and I'm afraid that maps of the location of the piping are as gone as the refinery itself is. Moreover, there are also a half-dozen buried crude pipelines between the refinery site and Oil City, PA that are also in critical danger of serious decay too, that the Clean Water Act has no control over either, as they all substantially predate the Act in abandonment. So, any day there could easily be another Cuyahoga River fire, as well as in many places in between Oil City and Cleveland, though I will admit that Lake Erie has become somewhat cleaner than it used to be too, thanks in large part to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, which along with the Superfund Acts and the Acid Rain Act, as well as various revisions, has made it too expensive for the region's older industries to compete, resulting in lots of lost jobs as well as an approximate 50% loss in local property values too!!!

But at least some progress has been made on cleaning-up Lake Erie, even though the lives of a couple of million people have been put under severe economic stress to do so! Quite frankly I'm not certain that the end result justifies the means either. Basically a lot of environmentalists seem to hold unbridled hatred for the advanced economic growth that made America great as well as today permits people to enjoy enough of a food surplus so that most of every day is not spent searching for food like in other less-advanced countries.

A lot of environmentalists seem to greatly dislike a whole lot of other people who don't seem to see things their way too! I'm an urban sustainability planner with almost 35 years of urban transportation and urban supply logistics experience. Every day the more than I read on urban sustainability, the more convinced that I am that there is no such thing as long-term urban sustainability, and within 100 years or so a whole lot of people are going to end-up dying due to impending natural resource depletion in-combination with a runaway population growth rate, at which time further protecting the environment will become one of our less-important worries, well below our need to somehow produce enough food without phosphorus or fuel so that mass-starvation isn't the result.

Mark my words, the Cuyahoga will again catch on fire, quite likely several more times, and there is nothing short of digging-up the entire refinery site, which stretches all the way east of the riverbank to east of the current RTD car barn east of East 55th St, a minimum of 40-50 feet deep and a half mile wide and cleaning-out all of the abandoned underground refinery piping that is still full of fuel and lubricant contaminates, and every day the danger that it will deteriorate enough to leak is getting worse too.

This book is a decent primer on the scientific field of resource-depletion, which the authors thought was such a critical subject that an abridged version of the book is available online for free, plus the parent organization puts-out new dire warnings of our eventual demise on a nearly daily basis too!

The book is "The End of Growth", written last year by the Senior Research Fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, Richard Heinberg, an senior authority respected worldwide for his energy-depletion forecasts. Start with Chapter #3, as it is the most-exciting part!!!

http://www.postcarbon.org/end-of-growth-chapters/

Sorry to bust your bubble, but the Clean Water Act can't keep the Cuyahoga from burning..

I am a former Cleveland State University Urban Planning and Macro-Economics student, with considerable more-recent Urban Sustainability academic knowledge gained from the Earth Sciences Department at Denver's Metro State College too, but the one class that helped me the most with writing this opinion was my History of Cleveland class at CSU from more than 30 years ago, as it would seem that some of the history that was taught then has been lost since then too!

Sad!!! You are right - neither clean air or water laws will prevent old pipelines from releasing toxic petroleum into rivers and lakes. One wonders how many other cities are in peril, with the clock ticking.

All the more reason to protest the cavalier attitude of polluting industries who walk (run) away from responsibility to clean up their own messes ("It will cost jobs" really meaning "Our shareholders expect a larger dividend this year"). Such behavior costs American taxpayers not only clean-up money but health costs as our environmentt is ravaged for profit. We must all care enough to let our Congress members know we are watching whose interests they are supporting.

Sad!!! You are right - neither clean air or water laws will prevent old pipelines from releasing toxic petroleum into rivers and lakes. One wonders how many other cities are in peril, with the clock ticking.

All the more reason to protest the cavalier attitude of polluting industries who walk (run) away from responsibility to clean up their own messes ("It will cost jobs" really meaning "Our shareholders expect a larger dividend this year"). Such behavior costs American taxpayers not only clean-up money but health costs as our environmentt is ravaged for profit. We must all care enough to let our Congress members know we are watching whose interests they are supporting.

Thanks Liz - well written. Why have the Clean Water Act and the EPA become flogged in these purportedly pro-business positions. These plans are short sighted. Businesses will always be challenged if they threaten the health of their customers and employees - seems like a poor business plan. Relatedly, why aren't either of the presidential candidates talking about the environment? There isn't a business in the country that isn't trying to be a little greener, if only because IT SAVES MONEY. Environmentalism is good business. Strengthen the Clean Water Act and give the EPA back its authority.

How can anyone write a story about the Cuyahoga without reference to Randy Newman's classic, Burn on Big River? "Well God can make a river toss, and God can make it turn, and make it overflow its banks, but only man can make it burn."

THE FUTURE OF CLEAN WATER LOOKS GRIM. WE NEED THE COOPERATION OF ALL NATIONS AND THE UNITED NATION TO EXECUTE CLEAN WATER STANDARDS AND ACTION!!!!!!!!

I truely believe that all companys should STOP dumping all their waste products of all kinds properly and NOT to place it in the waters ANYWHERE , such is greed and carelessness of the health of all peoples, NO WONDER we have so much CANCERS anymore GOOD GRACIOUS wake up people we need to STOP this selfish /greed pollutions and make all companys properly contain their waste products.....

IF YOU want your children and grandchildren to have good clean water in the future and less CANCERS . We all need to ACT NOW. not keep on putting this off.....

CLEAN WATERS are needed for good health and long lives.

Good story I live on the OHIO RIVER pollution from farming chemicals and industial waste into the OHIO RIVER are real but this is a constant battle when so many fliuds are in the river oils of all kinds float in the river plus green slume.IT IS NOT SAFE TO SWIM IN THE OHIO RIVER!

Good story I live on the OHIO RIVER pollution from farming chemicals and industial waste into the OHIO RIVER are real but this is a constant battle when so many fliuds are in the river oils of all kinds float in the river plus green slume.IT IS NOT SAFE TO SWIM IN THE OHIO RIVER!

Thanx Liz. I too lived close enough to the lake to enjoy it as a child. I became so saddened when one day I heard that it was considered dead. I didn't know why. What did we do? Well, now I can lay the blame where it belongs as you stated in your piece - Toledo, Detroit, and Erie, PA all contributed to its demise with their manufacturing waste. What a sad commentary on how we treat our precious resources.

It's not well known outside of Cleveland, but the Cuyahoga river used to catch fire on a regular basis. That's right, not just once but rather a common occurance. All due to heavy pollution. Now many politicians and corporate interests want to remove clean air and water protections. I lived through and witnessed Lake Erie's "dead lake" era, as well as swam in and ate lots of fish from it. I've also seen what pollution controls and responsible stewardship can do. While there is still more work to do, our beautiful lake is once again just that. I've seen it change from brown and cloudy to green and finally blue and clear as it is today. People who haven't seen this first hand just don't get it.

How well I remember that time. I grew up near Detroit, which also had it's flaming rivers. I remember how the river nearest me, the Huron, was filthy with sewage from the many cottages that lines it waterways that leaked septic tank material. The Clean Water act saved so many rivers. In the years that followed the Act's passage water in many of the rivers I canoed in became so much clearer and swimmable. Fish began to come back.

I can hardly believe that we have corporate people so greedy that they are willing to place profit over people and nature. If the Koch Brothers and other allied idiots are allowed to have their way, we will be headed to a very bleak future....

The original Clean Water Act was certainly needed and continues to be needed today.

The original Clean Water Act was certainly needed and continues to be needed today.

As a child I remember this, and witnessed this on the west coast as well; Missiona Bay with brown tide warning. You can guess what that was. Now they want to start fracking Michigans network of waterways looking for gas-this too will destroy our state like it did the water table in California. People; notice the incidences of cancer and the attack on the endocrine system; thyroid issues, and many many more conditions for us. I use a countertop distiller for my water source as always to also avoid agricultural poisons and fertislizer chemicals that burn and kill the soil, rather than the claimed fertilizers. Everything attached to chemicals is generally a lie coming from the company telling you how it is.

It is pure and simple greed. It costs money to insure manufacturing is accomplished with environmentally responsible constraints. Far too many manufacturing companies are willing to compromise the environment for the least cost. Romney wants to promote self constraint without government regulation or control. This will not work. We must not let those responsible for polution control themselves. Money (profit) is the sole driver in their decision making.

I too grew up east of Cleveland on the waters edge. Between the years of 1970-83 I swam in the Lake every day in the summer. We would often push the dead fish out of the way that were washing onto the shore to get 10 feet past them so we could swim out and beyond. I never saw the tops of my feet while I waded in the water. I spent many summer nights suffering from ear aches due to the dirty water. All this was very disappointing, like having DDT in your soup. However, by the late 80's there was a noticeable difference in the clarity of the water. It was due to the zebra mussels and the efforts of the clean water act. I never thought I would see this happen in my lifetime, but I did. A prime example of how regulations have imposed its goodwill for humankind. A correlative effect one cannot deny. Now we need to turn our efforts toward farmers and come up with better uses of pesticides to stop the poisons that run off into our rivers and end up in the lake. If we don't the lake will be dead again and we will need to invest heavily into desalination plants.

our beaches in australia r the best - so clean.

Very well said! And you are right, it is not just Ohio or even the nation's capitol. Waters across the US are now under siege and our elected officials must be held accountable.

StopDumpingCoalAsh.com

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