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Lackluster Clean Water Enforcement Harms American Waters

Last year, a U.S. Steel plant in Indiana repeatedly spilled hexavalent chromium, a highly toxic metal that can cause cancer and lead to respiratory, liver and kidney damage, into a tributary of Lake Michigan. 

In April 2017, the facility reported that 346 pounds of total chromium (which includes hexavalent and other less-damaging forms of chromium) – more than 500 times the limit set in its Clean Water Act permit – had been released from a rusty pipe. Roughly five months later, this facility spilled another 56.7 pounds of total chromium, an incident that U.S. Steel informed the Indiana Department of Environmental Management about in a letter that requested confidentiality from the agency.

These toxic spills triggered an emergency response from neighboring communities. A local water utility took a water treatment plant in Ogden Dunes, Indiana, offline for five days after the April spill. The National Park Service closed four beaches to the public. Even after the beaches reopened, weekly testing continued until Labor Day, to ensure that swimmers and wildlife weren’t being exposed to dangerous levels of contamination. Concern spread out of state as well. In Chicago, which draws its public water supply from Lake Michigan, city officials rushed to conduct testing at the water intake closest to the spill.

Another response came a few weeks after the October spill, when the Surfrider Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to protecting water and beaches, filed a lawsuit against U.S. Steel for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act.

The Surfrider Foundation was able to learn about the extent of the spill because the Clean Water Act requires large industrial facilities to publicly report their water discharges. Similarly, this group was allowed to sue U.S. Steel because a provision of the Clean Water Act allows citizens to pursue enforcement of the law when officials fail to take action.  

The Clean Water Act has been instrumental in protecting America’s waters. But the job of cleaning up our waterways is not done. The EPA’s 2017 National Water Quality Inventory reports that approximately 55 percent of all miles of rivers and streams and 70 percent of all lake area in the U.S. that have been assessed fail the water quality standards set for their intended use.  

For the Clean Water Act to successfully protect our waterways, facilities must follow the law … and face accountability if they don’t. Our recent report, Troubled Waters: Industrial Pollution Still Threatens American Waterways, finds that both compliance with and enforcement of the Clean Water Act have been lackluster at best.

From January 2016 through September 2017, the nation’s largest industrial facilities released pollution in excess of their discharge permits more than 8,100 times. A closer look reveals that many of these exceedances were particularly severe – containing pollution many times greater than the legal limit, or occurring in waters that were already too polluted for uses such as swimming, fishing or drinking. The report enables you to learn how many industrial facilities in your state exceeded their Clean Water Act permits and how often your state’s impaired waterways received excess pollution. The report also discusses state agencies’ longstanding failure to act on violations, and the recent proposed budget cuts and policy changes that will make it even harder to enforce the law.  

When the Clean Water Act was first passed in 1972, Congress hoped that it would eliminate point source pollution. Clearly, that hasn’t happened yet. The Trump administration’s efforts to repeal the Clean Water Rule and other important protections threaten to instead move us backwards. To protect and restore our waterways, states and the federal government must prioritize the enforcement of our bedrock clean water protections. By strengthening and fully enforcing the Clean Water Act, we can continue to move toward ensuring that our waterways are clean and safe for people and for wildlife.

Addendum: On Monday, April 2nd, U.S. Steel agreed to pay almost $900,000 to settle the lawsuit discussed in this post.

Photo: Indiana beaches along Lake Michigan were closed after a toxic chromium spill in 2017. Photo: Zenia via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0