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Don't Water Down the Clean Water Act

John H. Adams

Posted June 23, 2011

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Here's an idea. Let's let the governor of West Virginia decide how much coal waste gets dumped into rivers flowing into North Carolina.  How about the folks in Kentucky do the same for their neighbors in  Tennessee. While we're at it, let's just make it clear right now that anyone anywhere is free to send their pollution flooding across state lines, where somebody else downstream pays the price—and drinks the water.

Absurd? Yes. Illegal? Well, for the time being. This could be what happens, though, under a pernicious bill passed Wednesday by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

This legislation has to be stopped, or it will gut the Clean Water Act, the foundation for safeguarding our rivers, wetlands, lakes and streams. Weakening those safeguards, in fact, is the intent of the bill, the single greatest assault on clean water protections in a generation.

Entitled the "Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act," and designated H.R. 2018, the bill would allow states eager to attract or appease big polluters to effectively veto improvements in the water quality standards we've worked for decades to put into place.

It would enable governors to give a green light to local polluters and influential donors that want to dump dangerous levels of coal waste, industrial chemicals, municipal sewage and agricultural runoff into waters we share as a nation.

We know how this would work out because, sadly, we've tried it already.

Until the Clean Water Act was strengthened in 1972, we had a shaggy quilt work of state-by-state water quality regulations. The result: our waterways were so polluted that some, like Ohio's great Cuyahoga River, caught fire. We dumped so much nitrogen and phosphorous into the Mississippi that it created massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Drinking water in Alabama contained chemicals from coal mines across Appalachia. And the federal courts were jammed with lawsuits pitting one state against the next in a national water feud.

The Clean Water Act addressed those ills, by ensuring that every American everywhere has access to water that meets a common minimal standard for cleanliness and quality. States have every right to hold polluters to a higher standard if they choose. But the Clean Water Act makes clear that no state, no corporation, nobody anywhere has the right to pollute someone else's water.

That fundamental principle was rejected Wednesday by the majority of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by its chairman, John Mica, R-Fla., and Nick Rahall, D-WVa. Both men are peeved that the Environmental Protection Agency would deign to enforce federal law.     

The EPA has blocked some big coal companies from blowing the tops off of mountains in ways that have put entire Appalachian watersheds at risk. And it has put in place new safeguards to protect our waters from the kinds of chemical pollutants that are choking Florida's lakes and streams with green algae slime.      

Mica and Rahall, co-sponsors of H.R. 2018, have responded with legislation aimed at taking the teeth out of the Clean Water Act and stripping the EPA of its enforcement authority. Their bill would allow state agencies to override EPA decisions on pollution permits for riverside factories, the treatment of sewage waste, the handling of dredging materials and an array of other critical activities.      

The timing is critical. Advances in science and water quality monitoring, as well as changes in industrial technologies and practices, mean the EPA needs to modernize standards to keep up with emerging pressures on the waters we all depend upon - for our health, recreation and jobs.      

This is no time to water down the Clean Water Act.     

H.R. 2018 would mark an abrupt U-turn in the long journey we've taken to protect our waters and health. It would throw us back to a time when state fought state over the fate of this essential resource. It spits in the eye of the very concept of states united, acting together, for the good of us all, one nation, under God. And it deserves swift and decisive defeat on the floor of the people's House.

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