America’s waterways provide us with drinking water, places to fish and swim, and critical habitat for wildlife – when they are clean and protected.
The passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 was a turning point in America’s efforts to protect and restore its rivers, lakes and coastal waters. Though the Clean Water Act has made some progress bringing our waters back to health, a closer look at compliance with and enforcement of the law reveals an overly lenient system that too often allows pollution without accountability.
Over a 21-month period from January 2016 to September 2017, major industrial facilities released pollution that exceeded the levels allowed under their Clean Water Act permits more than 8,100 times. Often, these polluters faced no fines or penalties.
To protect and restore our waters, state and federal officials must tighten enforcement of the Clean Water Act.
Table ES-1. The 10 States with the Most Exceedances Reported by Major Industrial Facilities
National data on Clean Water Act compliance shows that during the 21-month span from January 2016 through September 2017:
Not only did many major industrial facilities exceed their permit limits – sometimes frequently – but some of those exceedances were particularly severe, with facilities releasing multiple times the amount of pollution permitted under their Clean Water Act permits.
State and federal agencies are failing to take strong enforcement action to stop these rampant excess discharges of pollution into America’s waters.
Figure ES-1. Federal and State Inspections of Industrial Facilities by Year
The Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget and reduced emphasis on enforcement threaten to open the door for more illegal pollution of our waterways. For fiscal year 2019, the current administration plans to cut the EPA’s budget for civil enforcement of environmental protection programs, including the Clean Water Act, by $30.4 million. Funding for state grants to improve the permitting process and enforcement of the Clean Water Act is slated for cuts as well; this program’s proposed budget is lower than the amount allotted in total grants for at least the previous seven years.
To protect the rivers, streams and lakes that are critical for the health of our wildlife and our communities, states and the federal government need to take strong action to enforce our core environmental laws. To strengthen compliance with clean water regulations, policymakers should:
Correction (4/12/18): Information in Table 8 has been updated. "Number of Facilities with Exceedances Greater than 100% of Permit Limit" has been corrected for Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Texas. The rest of that table remains unchanged.