Clean Water Restoration Dammed in Congress

It's time to break industry stranglehold on clean water legislation

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A year ago, the 111th Congress looked like a friend to those who care about clean water. I praised Senators Russ Feingold (D-WI), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Ben Cardin (D-MD) and others back then for introducing legislation that would restore teeth to the Clean Water Act.

Things moved swiftly as a compromise version of this bill, the Clean Water Restoration Act, passed through the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee last June. Attention then shifted to the House side, where Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN) was expected to reintroduce the bill by early autumn.

But, despite promises for quick action, we still do not have a bill in the House. And momentum on strengthening clean water protections has slowly diminished under the weight of industry pressure.

Until now.

A few days ago, The New York Times released the latest in a series of articles investigating the many profound impacts of inadequate enforcement of our clean water laws throughout the country. From its opening words, this article zeroes in on why the Clean Water Restoration Act is necessary:

Thousands of the nation’s largest water polluters are outside the Clean Water Act’s reach because the Supreme Court has left uncertain which waterways are protected by that law.

The Act would safeguard streams, lakes and rivers that have lost or are at risk of losing federal pollution protections—waterways that provide drinking water for more than a third of Americans, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Without this important bill, polluters may be free to dump at will—with little to no consequence. The article warns:

"We are, in essence, shutting down our Clean Water programs in some states," said Douglas F. Mundrick, an EPA lawyer in Atlanta. "This is a huge step backward. When companies figure out the cops can’t operate, they start remembering how much cheaper it is to just dump stuff in a nearby creek."

The Boston Globe editorialized on March 3 that:

Recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have undermined the ability of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop pollution of the nation’s waterways. Congress should pass a senate bill that would leave no doubt about the agency’s authority to crack down on manufacturers, developers, and others guilty of discharging toxic wastes into wetlands and rivers.

We couldn’t agree more.

Today, Earthjustice calls on Chairman Oberstar and others to read and reread this important article and respond to this call for action. Introducing the Clean Water Restoration Act and passing this legislation will finally put to rest the uncertainty, confusion and ambiguity that has undermined Congress’ original intent when it passed the Clean Water Act—that all America’s waters should be protected from destruction, pollution and degradation.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”