This month both the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold hearings on the Clean Water Restoration Act. Thirty-five years after the landmark Clean Water Act was put into motion our water quality has improved somewhat but our goals continue to elude us. This isn’t helped by the fact that too many industrial and municipal facilities surrounding the Great Lakes and lining the rivers that flow into the lakes have violated EPA permit limits. Records show them dumping way more sewage, E.coli, mercury, PCBs, cancer-causing chemicals such as benzo(a)pyrene, suspended solids, and other pollutants into the waters than they are allowed. Everything from fish and wildlife habitats to drinking water and human health is impacted.
By the way, these permit violations reflect only the pollution being sent directly into the water and do not consider the air pollution that further affects water quality – such as the coal plants that release around 1400 pounds of mercury annually into the air – some of that mercury makes its way into the lakes and waterways. In fact, a recent federal study found that each year these plants are responsible for raining down about 880 pounds of mercury into Lake Michigan alone.
Currently, under CWA companies are required to get permits that limit the level of pollutants they can send into the waterways. The original plan was to tighten those limits over time, but state and federal regulators have not been consistent in lowering permit limits. In fact, outrageous though it may be, municipalities and companies are in massive violation of those permits and 40 percent of the waters that the violations have happened on are waters that are not protected by the EPA or the Corps due to recent Supreme Court decisions limiting the CWA protections to only navigable waters.
Last fall, the US Public Interest Research Group released a report explaining that in 2005, more than half (57 percent) of this nation’s major industrial and municipal facilities discharged more pollution into our waterways than allowed. Even worse, the average facility exceeded its pollution permit by discharging close to four times the legal limit.
The water pollution violations that sewer plants, power plants, mills and industry reported to the EPA in 2005 for the eight states surrounding the Great Lakes show that there is a real danger to the acres of wetlands, Great Lakes tributaries, rivers and streams as well as the Lakes themselves. Some examples follow:
-One Michigan municipality reported exceeding their permit limits of .002 pounds of mercury per day by 25 percent – sending the excess into the Detroit River. This was during one reporting period that lasts for one month. The federal government limits mercury discharges to .08 pounds annually.
-Another Michigan municipality exceeded their pounds per day permit limit for PCBs by 2,799 percent during the 11/30/05 reporting period. The monthly average limit is .0000069 lbs/day.
-During just one reporting period, an Indiana company admitted to dumping cyanide in excess of their daily maximum pounds per day by 29 percent.
-Gary Works Indiana is responsible for increasing the amount of toxic chromium it put into the Grand Calumet River that empties into Lake Michigan. The EPA is currently investigating Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management for poor decision making as it failed to limit the amount of mercury, lead, cyanide, ammonia and benzo(a)pyrene going into Indiana’s waters, according to reports in the Chicago Tribune.
Still, after reading the US PIRG report, I’d think twice about drinking the water in Indy – that same year, a lot of municipalities reported exceeding the amount of colony forming units of E. coli allowed under current law. A recent Chicago Tribune analysis of EPA data found that Lake County ranks third in the nation for health risks related to water pollution.
Raw sewage, chemicals, and poisons have been vexing the lakes and tributaries for years, in fact, they attracted national attention that helped get the Clean Water Act of 1972 enacted. Now, the law is less effective and the Bush administration is weakening it further by interpreting the Supreme Court decisions narrowly and aggressively cutting off the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers jurisdiction over too many sensitive waters.
The bottom line is that the Great Lakes and major tributaries are being polluted well beyond what is allowable under current law. A US Senate panel has been discussing expanding those protections. An amendment to CWA being offered by US Reps. Jim Oberstar, D- Minn. Russ Feingold , D-Wisc. would reestablish protection over all bodies of water whether or not a boat can float on them. If enacted, the words “waters of the United States” would replace “navigable waters” and protections would extend to wetlands and tributaries essential to providing clean drinking water and a healthy ecosystem – the source of life for us as well as a multibillion dollar hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation economy in our region. The approval of this legislation would go a long way toward the realization of the Great Lakes Collaboration Strategy.