The continued degradation of America’s waterways by industrial pollution – and the unwillingness of the state and federal governments to take the necessary action to stop it – is one of the great “hidden in plain sight” problems of our time.
It has long been common knowledge that too many state agencies have failed to properly enforce the Clean Water Act – and that such lack of enforcement was OK with the Bush-era EPA. Way back in 2002, our State of Environmental Enforcement report referenced reams of reports from EPA’s inspector general, the GAO, state auditors’ offices and others that painted a picture of a wholesale breakdown in many states’ permitting, inspection and monitoring processes, and of a general unwillingness to penalize polluters who broke the law. Many others, including Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Center for Progressive Reform, have issued similar warnings.
Moreover, any review of the federal government’s Toxic Release Inventory – which tracks industrial discharges of toxic chemicals to rivers, lakes, streams and ocean waters – would reveal the degree to which the dumping of dangerous substances into our waterways persists. Our recent report, Wasting Our Waterways: Toxic Industrial Pollution and the Unfulfilled Promise of the Clean Water Act, found that more than 230 million pounds of toxic chemicals into America’s rivers, streams and lakes in 2007.
Now, however, the New York Times’ Charles Duhigg has turned his attention to the issue with the dynamite investigative series, “Toxic Waters.” The series is a catalog of threats to our waterways that have long been ignored by the EPA, including the discharge of heavy metals such as lead and arsenic from coal-fired power plants. It also tallies the costs of regulatory failure in tainted wells and poisoned rivers.
There are signs that the Obama EPA is moving to address some of the problems highlighted in our report and Duhigg’s series – including revising quarter century-old discharge standards for coal-fired power plants. Yet, at the same time, new threats to our waters are in danger of being ignored. Environment America Research & Policy Center’s recent report, Toxic Chemicals on Tap, documents some of the threats posed by chemicals used in natural gas drilling – an activity that is currently exempt from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Fixing the long-standing neglect of environmental enforcement at the state and local level is no easy task. Let’s hope that the latest revelations of the impact that neglect of the Clean Water Act is having on our environment and our health will stiffen the Obama EPA’s resolve to act.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.