After 37 years, the goals of the Clean Water Act continue to elude us. That is why the US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing yesterday to find out what needs to be done to fulfill the promise of safe drinking water and end pollution.
In his opening statement, Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn), the Chairman of the Committee explained that the CWA has three elements – the third being a strong enforcement program that ensures implementation of the law. “Regrettably, we are faced today with a situation where these elements are incomplete and eroding, and as one might expect, it appears that we are losing ground with respect to the water quality goals of the Clean Water Act,” Oberstar said before adding, “It is becoming clearer that the actions of the Bush Administration completely undermined the nation’s progress in protecting water quality.”
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Quality Inventory reported that almost half of all our water bodies are spoiled from pollution. Two-thirds of the nation’s lakes are contaminated with PCBs, heavy metals and mercury.
“This is especially troubling to me because of my former career as a professional nurse,” said Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) Chair of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment. “There are few public health concerns more serious than the contamination of the public’s water supplies,” Johnson said.
Then, last month, the New York Times published the results of the paper’s investigation of enforcement records and showed the world that from 2004 to 2007 states punished less than 3 percent of violators and the EPA commonly refused to prosecute the polluters or force the states to comply.
Appearing before the panel, US EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that it is the “EPA’s job to clearly articulate the acceptable “bar” for state clean water programs” and then hold states accountable. The EPA’s plan would target the worst polluters first and foremost. But there is a problem with the Administrator’s plan and it is one of jurisdiction.
A Wisconsin woman who spoke before the panel, Judy Treml, told a terrifying story about how her infant daughter was whisked to the hospital after drinking dirty water from the facet in the Treml home. The well water on her property had been infected by manure from a nearby farm. A Congressman remarked that this kind of pollution can’t be punished because it isn’t covered by the Clean Water Act. At the moment, the CWA can only be enforced upon navigable waters – or those that a boat can move through and a baby poisoned by a Wisconsin well just wouldn’t fall under that kind of definition. Meanwhile, many large scale polluters are using the words navigable waters to evade enforcement and punishment. Perhaps Michael Moore’s next documentary should feature our water infrastructure system and the failure of the weakened CWA to protect innocents like the Treml infant.
But there is hope, legislation soon to be introduced would strike the words “navigable waters” and replace them with “all waters of the United States” to fix the unintended consequence of the narrow court interpretation of the original wording. Doing so, would return the tools to the federal agencies and states responsible for protecting our drinking water. We are just waiting for Rep. Oberstar to introduce the Clean Water Restoration Act sometime this autumn. Come on, Jim, we’ve got your back!