EPA Water Transfer Rule Proposes New Pollution Exemptions

Agency skirts Clean Water Act protections by allowing dirty waters


David Guest, Earthjustice, (850) 681-0031
Jared Saylor, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500

The EPA today proposed a new rule that would exempt an entire class of water polluters from the Clean Water Act.  The new rule would allow contaminants to be dumped into drinking water sources as well as lakes and streams by water transfer operations.  Some pictures are attached to illustrate what EPA does not consider to be pollution discharges and the effects those discharges have on water quality.

In a race to beat an impending federal court decision concerning pumping of contaminated water into Lake Okeechobee — the largest drinking water source in South Florida — the rule was rushed through the agency.  In that case, EPA joined the sugar industry and a water district in defending against claims by Florida Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Tribe that pumping massive quantities of polluted urban and agricultural wastes into Lake Okeechobee violated the Clean Water Act.  The case was the first time in EPA’s 24-year history that it has intervened on the side of a water polluter in a lawsuit. 

In that case, the environmentalists and the tribe proved that the South Florida Water Management District operates huge pumps that periodically discharge a black pollutant-laden plume that reaches nine miles into the lake.  The pumps are so large that they generate a flow comparable to a medium–sized river.  The resulting pollution plume contaminates drinking water supplies withdrawn from Lake Okeechobee and triggers toxic algae blooms.  Contact with the toxic algae blooms can cause serious skin infections and, if ingested, can be fatal to humans, livestock, and pets. 

Urban water treatment plants on the south rim of Lake Okeechobee have for several years measured carcinogen levels several times higher than legal limits due to the contaminated water the District pumps into the south end of the Lake.  A recent Center for Disease Control study warns pregnant women not to bathe in the water supplied in those cities because of the risk of birth defects.  The cost of treating the contaminated water to make it safe vastly exceeds the economic resources of the cities.   

David Guest, Earthjustice attorney and trial counsel in the Lake Okeechobee lawsuit, said “In the face of irrefutable evidence that transfers of contaminated water pose grave public health threats, the EPA is trying to disguise disposal of polluted water as allocation of water for later public use. If it poisons you when you drink it, its not allocation for public use.”  Guest also said that the rule can’t be justified by the need for water transfers of clean snow melt and spring water in the arid West.  “We aren’t talking Rocky Mountain Spring Water here.  I guarantee you that nobody would drink beer made from Pump Station Discharge Water.”

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