The Failure of the Guardians and Enforcers of the Clean Water Act

The New York Times Sunday paper makes a compelling argument for the Clean Water Restoration Act. Their reporting found that in the last five years, violations of water pollution laws have been violated more than half-a-million times leaving people vulnerable to cancer causing materials in their drinking water as well as those that increase illness and cause birth defects.

The paper collected records from the EPA via the Freedom of Information Act to compile a database of water violations to allow the public to see the problem more clearly. They reported out that during the Bush Administration the EPA was reigned in and limited in its ability to pursue violators of the law. In addition, the Supreme Court ruled that only “navigable waters” apply under the law, leaving more than half this nation’s rivers, streams and wetlands vulnerable to pollution.

“For the last eight years, my hands have been tied,” one E.P.A. official, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, told the New York Times. “We were told to take our clean water and clean air cases, put them in a box, and lock it shut. Everyone knew polluters were getting away with murder. But these polluters are some of the biggest campaign contributors in town, so no one really cared if they were dumping poisons into streams.” Apparently, even drinking water, something that human’s need to exist is susceptible to the corruption of politics.

The New York Times research found that one in ten Americans are exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals that cannot be smelled or tasted. For example, tap water in cities in Illinois and Indiana was laced with pesticides at concentrations so dangerous they can cause birth defects and fertility problems.

By looking at the New York Times database for Great Lakes states you quickly see that there are numerous violators in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and New York all along the shorelines of the lakes as well as on her tributaries. Michigan isn’t blameless either but the concentration of violations is a bit more inland and Minnesota has a few lining Lake Superior. But in Wisconsin there are apparently no violations and in Pennsylvania there don’t seem to be any along the strip of Lake Erie shoreline. Information that begs the question – do the states collect the same information, set the bar in the same place or enforce the law in the same way? Unfortunately, trying to compare states is like trying to compare apples to oranges.

When the British Petroleum scandal hit, I tried to pull EPA permits to learn more about violations from the states around the Great Lakes, but I quickly learned the problem with this – each state has their own timeline for monitoring, their own way of measuring the chemicals, and their own way of testing.  And some states, such as Ohio, claim that their standards are much higher and that is why there are many more violations in Ohio than in other states.

This lack of standardization is harming our ability to truly know and understand what is currently being dumped into the Great Lakes and how it is affecting the lakes and public health. This is one place where states rights are interfering with the public good.

At the same time that the New York Times published this report, Rep. James Oberstar (DFL-Minn.) was speaking to the Healing Our Water’s Coalition in Duluth, Minn.  Rep. Oberstar, sponsor of the Clean Water Restoration Act, was arguing that the urgency of the clean water issue that led Washington to create the CWA in the ‘70s isn’t there any more. “The immensity; the urgency has faded. Your responsibility becomes greater to mobilize the public mind and make the grassroots speak to Members of the House and Senate today as we did 30 years ago.” The Great Lakes and her tributaries need the Clean Water Restoration Act if we are going to successfully return them to a healthy state, and the public needs CWRA so that we can stop worrying about getting a life threatening illness from our drinking water.

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