Water 'Too Thick to Drink, Too Thin to Plow'

Without strong environmental safeguards, the interests of polluters will trump public health every time.

water pollution
In 1974, abandoned automobiles and other debris clutter an acid water- and oil-filled five-acre pond near Ogden, Utah. Without strong environmental safeguards, the interests of polluters will trump public health every time. (U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION)

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President Donald Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt like to say they care about clean air and water, but actions speak louder than words. They’ve already moved to weaken drinking water protections, delay stronger smog standards and allow the use of a brain-damaging agricultural pesticide on food crops. Trump administration officials spin a fantasy that they value a clean environment, but then they deride the legal standards that keep our air and water clean as “job-killing regulations.” 

The truth is this: The safeguards we all depend on to protect our air, water and health come in the form of government regulations. (The truth is also that these environmental regulations produce far more benefits than costs and actually create jobs—but that’s another story.)

Most Americans today don’t have to deal with the kind of rampant pollution that was poisoning our air and water 45 years ago because we’ve created strong federal laws requiring the EPA to issue regulations to stop the contamination. Before Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 and required the EPA to issue a host of new rules under the law, a patchwork of ineffective state regulations had allowed America’s waterways to become a dumping ground for sewage and industrial waste.

People said the water of Nebraska’s Platte River was “too thick to drink, too thin to plow.” In Cleveland, Ohio, they said that if you fell into the local Cuyahoga River, you wouldn’t drown—you’d decay. President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 called the Potomac River “a national disgrace.” Even the Senate recognized the scale and seriousness of the problem; it created a short documentary film in 1963 called “Troubled Waters,” narrated by Henry Fonda, which included footage of raw sewage and chemical residue in waterways.

According to a report from a group of EPA alumni, protective guidelines set by the EPA over the past 40 years have resulted in the removal of 702 billion pounds of pollutants from our nation’s waters. Most sewer systems now remove 85 percent of pollutants from wastewater, as opposed to in 1972, when half of the country was served by sewer systems that only removed 30 percent of contaminants. And the rate of wetland loss in the U.S. has slowed by a whopping 96 percent.

Similarly, before the Clean Air Act of 1963 authorized the EPA to develop new regulatory programs to reduce smog, soot and other pollutants, our air—especially in cities—was not safe to breathe. In Los Angeles, haze turned the skies brown and stung people’s eyes. In New York City, 169 deaths over Thanksgiving weekend in 1966 were attributed to air pollution. Perhaps most shocking of all was the plight of Donora, Pennsylvania, a small industrial town of 14,000 where a spike in air pollution killed 20 people and left 6,000 others gasping for air and suffering from chest pain. In the first 20 years after the passage of the Clean Air Act, the law prevented more than 200,000 premature deaths and 18 million cases of respiratory illness in children alone.

Industry leaders protested the new environmental rules, which they claimed would put them out of business. In 1975, the CEO of General Motors warned of a “complete stoppage…[of] production,” and “the obvious tremendous loss to the company, shareholders, employees, suppliers and communities.” But General Motors quickly changed its tune once the safeguards went into effect and the new, cleaner technologies put America at the forefront of industry.

We haven’t solved all our country’s pollution problems, but the lesson is clear: Without strong federal safeguards, polluters have the upper hand and the public pays the price. Now President Trump wants to tip the scales even more in favor of polluters. Trump’s billionaire advisors claim, as industry has for decades, that safeguards are costly. But the lack of safeguards is costly, too. When a polluter saves money by dumping waste into waterways, people downstream who fish, swim in or drink the water are forced to pay the price. 

The Trump administration does not have some magical ability to protect communities without regulations. Were it not for EPA regulations, Americans would not enjoy the cleaner air and water we have today. Rolling back these protections will only serve to make America polluted again. Earthjustice will fight in court to protect these vital laws from congressional and administrative attacks. Federal safeguards have protected us in the past, and they are our best hope for a healthy future. 

Based in New York, Peter Lehner (@p_lehner) directs Earthjustice’s Sustainable Food & Farming Program, developing litigation, administrative, and legislative strategies to promote a more just and environmentally sound agricultural system and to reduce health, environmental, and climate harms from production of our food.

Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.