When Polluters Attack The Clean Water Act

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,…

This page was published 11 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

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)

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.

Joan began her great work at Earthjustice in 1999, leading the organization in its work to save Appalachian waters and communities by ending mountaintop removal mining and to bring the protections of the law to all waters of the United States. One of the country's most effective and toughest advocates for clean water, Joan was a fighter for all who suffer environmental injustice. She passed away in 2012.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.