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When Polluters Attack The Clean Water Act

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View Joan Mulhern's blog posts
17 October 2012, 12:02 PM
Should we still have waste, raw sewage in our water after 40 years?

On December 28, 2012, Earthjustice lost its original Mountain Hero, Senior Legislative Counsel Joan Mulhern, who passed away after a long illness. Joan will be greatly missed.
Read Marty Hayden's tribute and a memorial to Joan from the Earthjustice Quarterly Magazine.


Clean water is one of Earth’s most precious resources. Life is not possible without clean water. Thursday is the 40th anniversary of our nation’s most important law to protect clean water and end water pollution: the Clean Water Act of 1972.

This is a great law whose goals include making all waters safe for fishing, swimming, and drinking, and to end the use of our lakes, rivers, streams and oceans as dumping grounds for pollution.

Yet some polluters are today trying to shred this fundamental law. Coal companies, paper mills, industrial facilities, gas and oil drillers, fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers and others have long been engaged in a campaign to roll back clean water safeguards.

Perhaps most outrageous of all are the efforts by sewage treatment plant operators and their lobbying arm—using public dollars—to tear down a basic building block of the Clean Water Act: the command to end the use of our waterways for the discharge of untreated human waste.

I know it sounds gross—and it is. Untreated sewage makes people who come into contact with it sick, and it costs enormous sums of money to clean it out of our drinking water supplies. But every year, billions of gallons of untreated sewage go into out rivers and lakes. Hello? Isn’t this the 21st century?

And sewage is still being dumped into our waters?

Sewage outfall in Washington, D.C. (David Baron / Earthjustice)

Sewage outfall in Washington, D.C.  (David Baron / Earthjustice)

The EPA and clean water groups like Earthjustice have been working for years to get cities to stop violating the law by dumping sewage into waters. But even now, on the brink of the law’s 40th anniversary, sewage agencies and their front groups are trying to further put off the day when the Clean Water Act’s goal of ending the discharge of untreated waste becomes a reality.

An association now called the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (formerly the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies) and members such as D.C. Water (the public brand-name for the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA)) have greenwashed their names but not cleaned up their act. They have cozied up to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and to some water advocacy groups that do not know any better to claim to support clean water. Indeed, these water utilities have implemented some of the most significant pollution control successes since the Clean Water Act was enacted—but that has happened largely thanks to citizen suits and enforcement actions compelling them to do so under court order. Now these same utilities are seeking policies to weaken and delay Congress’ command to stop raw sewage from being dumped in our waters.

Right here in our nation’s capital, for example, “D.C. Water” is seeking to put off for another 8 years compliance with deadlines to drastically reduce the overflow of untreated sewage into the Potomac River and Rock Creek. After a long fight initiated by Earthjustice and our local partners, D.C. Water got a 20-year schedule to clean up its overflowing sewers—a long schedule to begin with, that gave the agency time to develop a plan for dealing with the cost of clean up. Now they’re asking for an 8-year extension, and offering very little in return for the delay. They say they want time to study low impact development, but that time was already built into their 20 year implementation schedule.

Now that it’s apparent D.C. Water squandered its time, the agency is complaining about the stringency of its obligations. They compare D.C.’s relatively stringent obligations to those of other cities that have negotiated weaker requirements and longer compliance deadlines. If you ask us, the nation’s capital should be a leader in clean water, not the leader in a race to the bottom of a sewage-filled river.

Unfortunately, the same kind of request for delays and weaker standards is playing out all across the country, with support from lobbying associations like NACWA. If given their wish, these utilities will only succeed in unfairly saddling future generations with the cost of cleaning up our water pollution problems. This flies in the face of the Clean Water Act, which aimed to clean up sewage as much if not more than any other form of water pollution.

When the law was passed four decades ago, one of its chief authors, Senator Ed Muskie of Maine, asked the country:

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.

Hooray for Senator Muskie, and the overwhelmingly bipartisan majority of the House and Senate for being visionary enough to pass a law to end water pollution. That is what we should be celebrating on the anniversary of the Clean Water Act.

This is an important article by Joan Mulhern. Our future as a species depends on clean water. We can not live without clean water. Here in northern Michigan one of the most notorious international polluters of water, ground and air - Rio Tinto/Kennecott Minerals - are building a dubious sulfide "acid" mine in one of the most pristine areas and underneath a tributary - and through creative redesign have managed to avoid the Clean Water Act. This acid mine and others that will be built nearby soon - threaten the clean waters of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Lake Superior. Other corporations (plants using coal to make power and paper mills) have already screwed up Lake Superior so much that the state, federal and the Canadian governments have been forced to issue warnings on the amount of fish that is eaten due to mercury poisoning. The state of Michigan is doing business with Rio Tinto - even tho it mine's have been involved in bribery, war crimes/genocide. It is sick that these blatant polluters are allowed to skirt laws meant to protect our health - and I fear the human race will not wake up before it too late on many environmental issues. From polluting air, water and soil - to killing off one-third of the pollinators - the perfect environmental storm is brewing - not unlike recent storms that have ravaged the U.S. east coast. People like Earth Justice - writers like Joan Mulhern - and others are doing our best to fight these injustices - but the mass majority of the population still turns a blind eye to corporate crimes in the name of jobs. The jobs arguments turned out to be a joke for the acid mines here in the U.P. of Michigan because only half of the 150 employees are local - and the mines close in less than seven years leaving behind a hideous mess. Local unions got in bed with the mine owners due to big job promises/bribery but have found out they got bamboozled. I beg people to support groups like Earth Justice and the many local environmental watchdogs because the future of your grandchildren depend in it. EarthKeepers II – EPA Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Press Conference Video:

Water will be the next natural resource that the entire world will be fighting over. The price of crude oil will not matter as much as the water on this planet. Keeping water clean is a major priority. Those who are stalling on cleaning up our water supply should be fined on a daily basis until they comply with the clean water act. Perhaps then we will not hear their whining. One would think that our water supply would be of paramount importance to all of us and the future of our children.

There is no time for negotiation. There is no doubt about pollued water. The future of this country depends upon clean, healthy water and waterways. Do what it takes to prevent a disaster.

Simply Strictly ENFORCE the QUARTER CENTURY Belated Clean Water Act (CWA) 1985 DEADLINE:
The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (CWA of 1972) is amended to read as follows:
SEC. 101 [33 U.S.C. 1251] Declaration of Goals and Policy
(a) The objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological
integrity of the Nation's waters. In order to achieve this objective it is hereby declared that,
consistent with the provisions of this Act--
(1) it is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be ELIMINATED by 1985.

how do they do it? people who work in such deceitful ways and use conflation and euphemism and other trickery to pretend that they or their employer aren't doing something wrong when in fact they are. green washers are douche bags of the highest order. people like that may be a separate species, one with no genes for conscience. people like that are grosser than untreated sewage in my opinion.

They are simply psycho/sociopaths, who care nothing for anyone but themselves, and would (and likely have) cut their own mothers' throats for a buck.

It truly blows chunks we let crazies like them run things...:-(

Thomas O. Nass’ Paraphrase and Enhancement of W.C. Lowdermilk , U.S. Dept of Agriculture 1948, from "Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years"

This Holy EarthThou shall inherit this Holy Earth as a Faithful Steward, respecting, protecting and conserving its Environment, its Resources and its Productivity for future generations.Thou shall safeguard its Fields from erosion; its Soils and sub-Surface from Chemical Saturation; its Ocean Waters, its Ground Waters and its Air from chemical Pollution and over-heating. Its Oceans from over fishing; its Forests from desolation; its Mineral Resources from depletion; its Hills from overgrazing by thy herds and its Creatures from extinction. All this so that thy descendants may enjoy its abundance as once did thee.
As all Nations do share in the Ownership of this Holy Earth. Ergo, if any Nation or its leaders should fail in the responsibilities of their Stewardship, then all of thy Crop land shall become sterile ground with wasting gullies; thy waters unfit to drink; thy air too thick to breath; the meat of thy herds and thy flocks, as the spawn of thy waters and thy oceans, unfit to eat. If any of the above should come to pass, then thy descendants shall gradually diminish in their number and eventually depart in their entirety from off the face of this Holy Earth.
Why? Because insatiable, sociopathic, corporate, GREED and ignorance of their ignorance of all things except their "Bottom Line" shall have decreed it so.Corporate "PROFITS" and a "Clean Environment" are not, and never will be, compatible. Corporate Credo -to which their sycophants subscribe: "Rather no Planet at all than a Planet where our insatiable, sociopathic GREED cannot be satisfied. Restrictions, Safety Regulations and the Environment be Damned!"
Tom Nass
5th Marine Division - WWII

I read this and could not agree with you more. I hope you don't mind but I copied this I want to share it on my facebook page. Thank you for your service sir you are appreciated still today. I was born November 8 1967 and if it wasn't for men like you there wouldn't be an America fit for people like me. God bless you sir.

I would aver that nothing will prove more precisely the old Maxim: "What goes around, comes around", than the fact that what, we have, allowed to be Sprayed on our Crops, Spilled onto our Land -including the run-off from crops, Spewed into our Air, Buried in our Soil, DUMPED INTO OUR WATERS, left in our sub-surface as a result of Mining and Drilling operations, will soon be seen, smelt and tasted, in that order, as it comes back at us out of our spigots.
Count on it!
The potential for the survival of our environment is directly proportional to the, insatiable, sociopathic GREED of the "Special Interests" and their carte blanche to continue to Pollute, Deceive the Public and, then, Pollute some more! If not brought under control, GREED will soon take this great Country Down!
We are our Environment’s Keeper!
If not us, WHO? Certainly not those who are Profiting from its Destruction!

We cannot contaminate any waterway. The challenge is for industry and science to re-use the waste and sewage we produce. Recycle it as fertilizer, remove toxins from the sewage that is harmful. We could dump some into volcanoes or use it to produce gases, fertilizer, and other reusable goods. Yes, society will pay for the waste. We either pay it now or pay for it later. We cannot continue to contaminate our water and environment.

Corporate interests -- read, profits -- result in brain death. Politicians dependent on corporate largess are likewise brain dead. The United States of America is now controlled by a plutocracy of vested, corporate interests and the wealthiest citizens, who buy and sell politicians -- including the Democrats and President Barack Obama.
So! Do not expect anything to get better until 'We, the People' -- or Sheeple? -- begin protesting. NOT peacefully.

All that CRAP coming out of The White House right into D.C. streams explains it

Who needs water when you got Whiskey? It mixes good with baby formula - no clumps

Hey sodbuster, Vodca works better.

Your comment, sodbuster, isn't even funny. You are an idiot.

I agree with Ken Kirk and others. The structural CSO abatement and advanced wastewater treatment projects that are being mandated (and wisely opposed) now are often similar to projects that EPA rejected under its grants programs decades ago because they did not meet EPA standards for cost-effectiveness and/or environmental assessment. At least non-structural solutions are appropriately still encouraged.

what about cities and communities who fail to have a full inspection of their treatment plant?
and fix the pipes if human waste clogs them

"Perhaps most outrageous of all are the efforts by sewage treatment plant operators and their lobbying arm—using public dollars—to tear down a basic building block of the Clean Water Act: the command to end the use of our waterways for the discharge of untreated human waste."

Can anyone say George Hawkins?

All of the progress that the United States has made toward improving water quality in the United States is a direct result of the work of the clean water community—those individuals working to treat our wastewater and stormwater each and every day, 365 days a year. Our cities and towns have invested nearly $1 trillion since 1991 on water and wastewater service and infrastructure, and continue to invest $100 billion each year to protect our waterways even as federal dollars have disappeared.

When the combined sewer overflow (CSO) policy was adopted by EPA in 1994 to address the effects of combined sewer systems—which collect stormwater, and domestic and industrial wastewater in the same pipe— federal aid to help communities meet the mandates under this policy were further reduced. Today, local communities bear more than 99% of the cost to address the growing needs of wastewater and stormwater treatment.

It is helpful to remember that these combined pipes were, at the time of installation, state-of-the art systems. But like the rest of our Nation’s infrastructure, they have come to the end of their useful life. But the question remains: How do we pay for these upgrades? How do we rip up pipes buried far beneath fully developed urban cities and then leave the local communities holding the bill? These are the issues communities throughout the United States are struggling with. These are the issues that are leading to enormous costs for DC Water and the people who live there.

And this is exactly the opposite of what Senator Muskie and his compatriots did when the Clean Water Act was initially passed, providing significant funding and support for treatment plants. In fact, Senator Muskie himself has commended NACWA and its members for the important work they have done to clean up the environment.

Which brings me to NACWA’s name, which we changed over ten years ago to better reflect the work we and our members are doing—providing clean water and protecting the environment. Because guess where wastewater comes from? It doesn’t come from DC Water or other utilities: It comes from all of us and the waste that we all generate every single day. We generate wastewater not only every time we flush the toilet or take a shower, but every time we consume a product or food or gallon of gasoline—all of which generate wastewater during production and delivery.

And the people running and working at our local treatment plants are the ones who make sure we have access to this clean water that is so critical to our lives and our environment.

NACWA as a national advocacy organization, and its members, such as DC Water, and several environmental organizations are working with EPA and others to ensure the Clean Water Act is flexible enough to encourage and allow for innovation—such as energy conservation/production, reuse and reclamation, green infrastructure, resource recovery—which is the only way we will improve water quality. Because it’s not just about the money, it’s also about achieving our water quality goals in the most effective, sustainable way possible.

Instead of filing lawsuits that delay progress and cost increasingly precious dollars that should much better go to improving water quality, EarthJustice is invited to join us in seeking a better partnership with EPA and others to ensure that we can meet our Nation’s water quality goals in a way that makes environmental, financial, and social sense. We all need work together to keep our water clean.

Ken Kirk, Executive Director, National Association of Clean Water Agencies

Mr. Kirk does not credit citizen suits under the Clean Water Act for the required clean up of raw waste discharges into the waters of the nation's capitol or elsewhere.

It is ironic, to say the least, for the lobby arm of the sewerage treatment industry to claim that citizen actions to enforce the Clean Water Act "delay progress" or incur more costs when these plants could have acted years ago for fewer dollars to clean up voluntarily.

And thanks for the invitation, Mr. Kirk, but Earthjustice has already been working for decades to make our nation's river, lakes, streams, wetlands, and oceans cleaner. An invitation from sewage polluters is therefore not necessary. We will keep doing our job with or without your permission.

– Joan Mulhern

Simple solution: there must be complete environmental impact assessments of the receiving environments for sewage and storm water. If the EIA shows that there are net environmental benefits for sewage treatment - then treat the sewage.

However, if there is no net benefit for treating sewage (ie, the impact on the receiving environment is less than that of the sewage treatment plant that creates thousands of tons of sewage sludge, consumes energy, creates greenhouse gases like methane), then do not treat the sewage. Spend the billions on better transit or public health programs instead.

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