Clean water. Mankind, and virtually every other living thing on this planet, needs clean water to survive. And yet, after 30 years of progress, our clean water programs are under assault once again. Under this administration, pollution restrictions are being rolled-back, enforcement of the remaining regulations is being curtailed, and much of the fresh water in the arid west is being handed over to a small circle of industrial interests. All of this will harm the average American.
There is no question that clean water is one of our most important resources. For human beings, water is actually more important than food. A person will die from dehydration more quickly than from starvation. The harmful effects of sewage in drinking water has been known for many years. And even though they are less obvious in the short-term, the harmful effects of industrial and chemical pollutants were well known long before Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972.
But we humans have a long history of misusing our water resources. Historically, we have used our rivers, our streams and even the oceans as a free disposal system for every imaginable type of waste. Abuse of our waters reached new heights during the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution was one of the principal factors that made our modern civilization possible, but it was also a chief source of new pollution problems. It led to population growth and concentration, it exacerbated existing pollution problems, and it created new types of pollution, such as massively concentrated natural pollutants and a host of artificial pollutants, all on a scale never before imaginable. In retrospect, we now know that our industrial prowess developed much more quickly than our environmental awareness.
Once upon a time we believed that swamps and wetlands were the sources of disease, and that it was a lofty goal to drain them or fill them. Now we now that these lands are incubators for many marine species that are critical elements of the food chain, and that they act as filters to remove countless tons of pollutants from the land and water every year.
Once upon a time, large pipes discharging tons of untreated waste into the rivers were a sign of economic strength. Now we realize that it is unacceptable for a river to be so polluted it can catch fire.
Once upon a time we thought the oceans were the ultimate disposal system - that they were so large that they could absorb any amount of waste we dumped into them. Now we know that even the oceans have their limits. We have seen the beach closings. We have seen whales that died after eating plastic bags or balloons. We have seen fish, birds and other animals that died after getting entangled in carriers from six-packs of drinks and other trash. And we know now that many of the fish in the oceans are contaminated by mercury and other chemicals that we have produced.
Once upon a time we thought that only large “navigable” waters were worth protecting. Now we know that dumping pollution in small streams and ponds is often more harmful. There is less water to dilute the pollution, the types of fish and animals in those waters are often less tolerant of pollution, and eventually it will find its way into the navigable waters.
The modern era of water protection was born in the 1940's and 50's when the Federal government began providing financial assistance for local jurisdictions to construct sewage treatment plants. The current basis for most of our water pollution control efforts is the Clean Water Act of 1972, which had a stated goal of making most waters “fishable and swimmable” by 1983, and to eliminate the discharge of pollutants to “navigable” waters by 1985.
We have fallen short of those lofty goals. There has been progress, but not enough. According to EPA, the percentage of our nation’s waters that meet water quality standards has increased by one-third to two-thirds since the Clean Water Act went into effect. But EPA also says approximately forty percent of our stream miles and forty-five percent our lake acres are still impaired, and forty-four states have some sort of fish-consumption advisory in effect.
After 30 years of work, and billions of dollars, why haven’t we been more successful? There are many factors, but I believe a major factor is that Congress has been inconsistent in its demand for water quality improvement. Rather than demanding that EPA enforce the Clean Water Act, Congress has more often undercut it. Authorizations for several provisions, including assistance to states, research, and general EPA support, were allowed to expire in 1987. Authorization of wastewater treatment funding, the program that started it all, expired in 1994. The fact that Congress allowed these authorizations to expire, but continues to appropriate funds for them, suggests that Congress would like to abandon these critically important programs but is afraid of the public’s reaction. So it is not surprising that EPA and the states have been hesitant to enforce the Clean Water Act consistently. That is why some states refused to make water quality determinations until the courts told them to. That is why some states fall behind on their discharge permit reviews and do not always enforce even the outdated permits that they have issued.
And all of this is why our citizens are compelled to use their time an money to sue the states and the Federal government demanding implementation of the laws Congress enacted. And what is the government response? Too often, government sides with the polluters, against the citizens. Although the Clean Water Act explicitly provides for citizen suits, all too often government’s first action is to ask the court to deny citizens the standing to sue. The result is that with each case it becomes harder for citizens, the very people the laws should protect, to play a role in ensuring that Federal and state governments to do what was promised with such fanfare when the laws were passed.
Its time for Congress to step up to the plate. This Congress should:
SRecognize that every citizen of this country has a right to clean water;
SRecognize that the hidden costs of water pollution far exceed the cost of prevention;
SEnsure that wastewater funding programs are strengthened and made permanent;
SSet a new schedule to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into waterways from point sources;
SEnd the debate about “navigable” waters by expressing the Congress’ intent to prohibit the discharge pollutants into any waters or water courses, including aquifers;
SSet procedures for periodically updating the list of regulated pollutants to keep pace with new scientific findings;
STake steps to protect groundwater recharge areas; and
SGet serious about addressing non-point water pollution.
Once upon a time, United States common law held that it was a nuisance or tort for one person to emit pollution that harmed another. That long-standing legal precept was another casualty of the industrial revolution because judges were looking for ways to allow economic expansion. We suffer from that legacy today. Rather that saying our citizen’s have the right to be free from pollution caused by others, our environmental regulations operate more like it is the businesses that have a right to pollute.
It is time to reassess our national policy on water pollution. We need to decide which “right” is more important. Who’s rights should we be protecting, citizens that want to have safe water to drink and swim in, or industries that want permission to continue polluting the environment?
I do not profess to know the best way to resolve these issues. But I do know that limiting the “intensity” of emissions will result in more pollution, not less. We cannot continue down that path if we want our children to be able to swim in the local pond or eat the fish they catch. We need to cap, and then reduce, the total aggregate amount of pollution from all sources.
We made significant progress during the past 30 years, and we grew the economy at the same time. I believe we can continue doing both. I ask the members of this committee, and the entire Congress to join me in embracing these goals.