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Defending Our Right to Clean Water

A girl drinks from a water fountain.

Water pollution is a nationwide problem that threatens our drinking water supplies, food sources and beloved forms of recreation.


Earthjustice is working to defend our nation’s water resources because we all have the right to clean water. Working locally, regionally, and nationally, Earthjustice protects specific waters and raises the bar overall by pushing for protective water quality standards.

In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to protect our public waters. It remains one of the nation’s most popular laws, but it is effective only when it is faithfully implemented and enforced. Earthjustice works to strengthen national Clean Water Act standards, establishes legal precedents that raise the bar for polluters, and close loopholes that let polluters off the hook.

“It is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.” – Clean Water Act, Section 101(a)

Earthjustice is defending our right to clean water by:

  1. Obtaining and preserving strong national laws and standards.
    • We are advocating for the adoption of legislation and EPA rules that would preserve the full protective reach of the Clean Water Act. Earthjustice has been a leader in seeking to restore the full historic reach of the Clean Water Act to cover tributary streams and other important waters after confusing court decisions led EPA to drop enforcement actions and industry to evade the Act's requirements.
    • Earthjustice is also challenging the Bush administration’s Water Transfer Rule, which exempts the transfer of polluted waters and streams, including some that serve as drinking water for millions of people. An entire class of water polluters from the Clean Water Act by allowing contaminants to be dumped into drinking water sources as well as lakes and streams by water transfer operations.
    • Obtaining and defending national standards that rein in pollution from coal plants, mountaintop removal mining, and other industrial activities.
  2. Raising the bar on protection through strategic, cutting-edge legal precedents.
    • Earthjustice is fighting to obtain the first numeric caps on sewage and fertilizer pollution that fuels toxic algae outbreaks.
    • We are also establishing that green building (aka “low impact development”) is the best and required method for controlling runoff pollution from development.
    • In Hawaiʻi, our historic Waiahole victory established that the public trust in water that requires sufficient water in streams to support historic water use, including Native Hawaiian taro growing, fishing and gathering.
  3. Enforcing the Clean Water Act to protect communities from pollution.
    • In Rochelle, Georgia, Earthjustice is representing a group of African-American citizens suing to stop their city from discharging raw sewage onto their properties.
    • In Washington, D.C., we are working to clean up pollution in the Anacostia River, which is heavily polluted from raw sewage, trash, and other contaminants that flow into the river.
    • In West Virginia, we are supporting the Environmental Protection Agency’s long-held authority under the Clean Water Act to regulate waste from commercial animal farms and seeking to confirm that a large West Virginia poultry operation should comply with all applicable regulations.
    • We are protecting the Buffalo National River from an industrial 6,500-pig swine facility on the banks of a tributary that flows straight into the Buffalo National River. We are challenging the US Department of Agriculture for guaranteeing a loan for the facility without examining the environmental impacts on the river and wildlife.
    • And in North Carolina, we are working to clean up ammonia pollution from a massive industrial chicken operation by arguing that the state may use a Clean Water Act permit to regulate the airborne emissions of ammonia being released from a concentrated animal feeding operation.
    • Nationwide, we are working to protect communities from the degradation of mountaintop removal mining, which is an extremely destructive form of mining that is devastating Appalachia. In the past few decades, over 2,000 miles of streams and headwaters that provide drinking water for millions of Americans have been permanently buried and destroyed.
  4. Defending the right of citizens to access the courts to prevent harm to their health and recreational interests. In 2013, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that a coalition of local and national river advocacy groups, represented by Earthjustice, have standing to challenge a major stormwater pollution permit in court. Later that year, a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge ruled that a permit issued by the Maryland Department of Environment for the Montgomery County storm sewer system violated the law because it doesn’t fulfill clean water requirements. Earthjustice argued that the state violated the law by failing to have specific limits on stormwater pollution discharges.