Sunday, September 20, 2009
Clean Water Act: Is It Time For A New One?
The following post is copied (with permission) from johncronin.net. Although ENV111 does not emphasize specific environmental problems, I urge you to read the attached especially if you plan to attend the panel discussion on September 22nd at 6:00pm. Please visit the Johncronin.net blog for many other interesting and informative articles.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Imagine No Pollution
The Future & the Failed Clean Water Act
Copyright 2009, John Cronin
The Clean Water Act has failed. It is time for a new law.
There is a mistaken, popular belief that the central purpose of the 1972 Clean Water Act is to bring to justice the bad guys who are polluting the nation’s waters.
The Clean Water Act was written to create a global market place based on American innovation that would end pollution in our lifetime, and “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.”
But a list of the law's failed policies reads like an indictment of the law itself.
The first policy goal on the first page of the Clean Water Act is the elimination of the discharge of pollutants by 1985.
The law also sets a goal of making the nation’s waters fit for sports and recreation, and for fish and wildlife by July 1983.
It calls for management plans to end pollution from runoff, protect watersheds, and enhance water resources, in keeping with the 1983 and 1985 goals.
It requires the cessation of toxic discharges in toxic amounts.
It establishes a sweeping domestic and foreign policy on water designed to protect life and health here and abroad.
Indeed, the enormity of the Clean Water Act’s failure can be measured in lives. The law directs the Secretary of State to assist other nations in eradicating their water problems to “at least the same extent as the United States does under its laws.” But since the Clean Water Act was enacted, as many as 100 million people, mostly children in the developing world, have died from diseases related to water pollution. The Pacific Institute estimates that between 36 million and 70 million will die by 2020.
On the Hudson River, where I live, thousands of tons of municipal and industrial wastes are dumped annually. Sewage overflows are commonplace and people routinely swim near industrial and municipal outfalls. At least 7 major fish species are in decline and health advisories about toxins in fish have been in place for 34 years. At least one city has a drinking water intake within two miles of its sewage plant discharge, and another has an intake 35 miles downriver of a PCB Superfund site. As with most places in the nation, there is no regular monitoring or investigation of illnesses likely to have been induced by water contamination.
How was the Clean Water Act supposed to prevent such things?
It promised massive, continuing funding of research and development to transform the science and technology of pollution abatement and treatment worldwide.
It promised permanent capital funding of publicly owned municipal treatment facilities.
And it created a permit system to halt pollution. The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System was supposed to accomplish precisely what its name says: systematically eliminate the discharge of pollutants.
It would be an exaggeration to say that these programs, and others in the law, have come to naught. But it is accurate to say that there is no date by which their goals can be accomplished -- and, obviously, no longer a date by which those goals must be reached.
We are left with this absurdity: the priority objective of the Clean Water Act today is to eliminate pollution 24 years ago.
It is not possible for EPA or the states to create a sense of purpose about clean water when the milestones of the Clean Water Act, the nation's most ambitious environmental law, came and went two and a half decades ago. A law that has been substantially unchanged for more than a generation cannot intelligently address “best available technology.” The EPA cannot even design new clean water programs and initiatives that are meaningful, since the very time line on which they would be founded is impossible, unless you own a time machine.
The United States needs a new Clean Water Act with new goals and milestones to take the place of the old, failed ones. The law must embrace, encourage and reward 21st century innovation. There should be generous incentives to exceed the requirements of law. It should create a brain trust of the most innovative minds, from research universities and private corporations in particular, charged with creating a pollution elimination marketplace that will equitably serve the entire planet. It should foster methods and technologies that are more effective, more robust, and cheaper to operate and maintain; expensive, antiquated technologies are enticements to violate the law. Unlike its predecessor, a new Act should make a priority of ecological and human health.
But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not need a new law to take substantive action on international water crises, and fulfill her obligation under the current law. More than 1.2 billion people live without potable water -- a statistic that should be unthinkable in 2009. Secretary Clinton can and should make global water assistance a priority of her portfolio. (See my posts on Iraq and Kenya.)
We need a vibrant, 21st century Clean Water Act that that will create a new sense of national and global purpose about water. Water is fast eclipsing climate change as a universal, environmental priority. Had the United States the political will to carry out the purposes of the original Clean Water Act it would today be a global leader on water issues, just when the world most needs it.
Can we imagine no pollution, as the courageous drafters of the 1972 Clean Water Act did? First we must swallow hard and admit that their original effort failed. Only then will the Congress and the president muster the courage to imagine that mission once again with a new, and better, Clean Water Act.