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50 years after passage, Clean Water Act faces shortcomings and legal challenges

 Moreau Lake in Saratoga County, New York
Jim Levulis
Moreau Lake in Saratoga County, New York

The Clean Water Act turned 50 years old this week. The measure established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters. Under the CWA, the Environmental Protection Agency has implemented pollution control programs such as industrial wastewater standards.

Although the anniversary was celebrated by environmentalists from coast to coast, the measure faces legal challenges today and shortcomings based on modern science and knowledge.

For more on the Clean Water Act’s impact, WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Mike Shriberg, the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Executive.

Shriberg: If you look at the big picture, the message is two-thirds of our waterways were not usable, meaning you couldn't drink, you couldn't use them for recreation, or you couldn't eat fish out of them. Now, one-third are. So what that tells me is that it's been very effective in many ways over the last 50 years. And, in fact, some of the worst polluted sites were in our region, where in the Great Lakes region, everything from in Buffalo to Cleveland to Detroit, those are actually the three most famous river fires that helped lead to the passage of the Clean Water Act. But right now, we're down to one-third of waterways that don't meet the standards of drinkable, fishable and swimmable. That's what the Clean Water Act set in place. And it was a reaction, of course, to polluted waterways around the country. But this particular region, the Great Lakes region, was kind of example number one, and is one of the primary reasons that it got passed in the first place.

Levulis: And how has the legislation held up in terms of its ability to meet the realities of today, you know, 50 years after it was passed, whether that's in the realm of today's science or economics?

Shriberg: Well, it's held up well in one way. The Clean Water Act, the basis of it, is what's called point source pollution. So it deals with pollution that you can see a pipeline of, you can see a pipe from, so think factories, think wastewater treatment plants, things like that. And it's done quite a good job on that. It's also been good job of preventing wetlands loss. We were losing wetlands at a rapid rate when it was passed. And now, wetlands we’re about staying even. Where the Clean Water Act falls short though, is with the pollution that doesn't come out of a single pipeline, but actually can come from multiple or hundreds, thousands, millions of different sources, think agricultural pollution and runoff and things like that. Think of things that run off yards and streets and things. It's not what the Clean Water Act was set up to do. Because that wasn't the dominant form of pollution 50 years ago. It now is the dominant form of pollution. So the Clean Water Act is not as strong, in fact, doesn't have the correct tools to deal with what some of the top pollution sources for waterways are now. And you know, that's a success story in a way, that's because we've ratcheted down on those pipes that you could see. But it also means that we have a long way to go and the Clean Water Act needs to be updated in order to address those threats that we're seeing today is the top ones.

Levulis: And among those threats, PFAS chemicals, is that correct?

Shriberg: Yeah, so PFAS chemicals, which come from many sources. Another thing that the Clean Water Act is not as equipped to deal with is chemicals like PFAS, which is called the forever chemicals, because minute quantities can get into water and last essentially, forever. These are chemicals that are designed to not break down, right. So this is like no-stick chemicals in cookware, for example, things like that. They're chemically designed to actually be bonded together for long periods of time. Well, these chemicals essentially didn't exist, or at least not in these levels. We didn't understand the health impacts that these chemicals had at very low levels 50 years ago. So the Clean Water Act is not well equipped to deal with those types of things as well. So there's some failures. I wouldn't call it failures of the designers of the Act 50 years ago, instead, of course, the science has evolved, our science of you know, what we knew about pollution. And of course, the threats have evolved since then as well. And we need the Clean Water Act to evolve with it more.

Levulis: And you mentioned the need to update the Clean Water Act. What sort of reception do you see that receiving?

Shriberg: Not a great one, in fact, what's happening right now, when we need to press forward, and we need to modernize the Clean Water Act for the next 50 years, what the Supreme Court is debating right now is a case that would actually limit the Clean Water Act and limit the scope of it. So developers and others have been trying to actually limit the types of waterways that are covered under the Clean Water Act. They're trying to limit about 50% of them, saying that wetlands that they aren't as directly connected to rivers, lakes and streams, they don't want them to be protected under this. Now we all know that all water is connected, right? Like even if you can't see the connection, it comes through groundwater and other things. And every water source, of course, is connected in the hydrologic cycle. But there is a movement right now, and Supreme Court has literally heard a case about this last week, that would actually limit the scope of water that's covered. So yes, we're not seeing a strong movement to update and modernize. We actually think we need stronger Clean Water Act, but there is a movement to weaken the Clean Water Act right now. So if that goes through, we'd be moving in the exact wrong direction.

Levulis: I find that interesting. And wanted to get your thoughts on what you make of this politicization of a sense of the Clean Water Act and the EPA’s powers and oversight, especially when you consider that the EPA when looking at that, it was created under President Richard Nixon, a Republican president?

Shriberg: Yes. It's interesting to think about the passage of the Clean Water Act actually, also under Nixon, although Nixon vetoed it. President Nixon vetoed the Clean Water Act, actually. He said it would be too expensive. But that veto override came with strong support from Republican lawmakers just as much as Democratic lawmakers. So you had a bipartisan consensus for clean water and the environment. You had things under President Nixon, that's how the EPA was created. And in some ways, we've lost that over time. There's no question that Republican views on that are less strong on the environment right now than Democratic ones. And so we've lost some of that bipartisan consensus.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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