Speak Up for the Clean Water Act

Late in 1982 the Environment Protection Agency proposed modifications to the Clean Water Act that could have seriously compromised the effectiveness of the law.

| January/February 1983

  • clean water act - brown water gushing from drain pipe
    Proposed changes to the Clean Water Act might have led to more of this.
    Photo by Fotolia/federicofoto

  • clean water act - brown water gushing from drain pipe

On October 29, 1982 the EPA published in the Federal Register a series of suggested modifications to the Clean Water Act, an essential piece of legislation which has been the cornerstone for significant improvements in water quality since its enactment in 1972. These changes are subtle in their wording, but could lead to a loss of quality in some streams, as well as to a halt in the progress toward cleanup in many others.

What the Act Says

The Clean Water Act establishes uniform limits on the pollutants discharged by industries and municipalities based on both technical and economic feasibility. States are currently allowed what is called "primacy" in applying and enforcing those limits. The Act also sets water quality standards for concentrations of pollutants, which vary according to the use of the body of water (the categories include propagation of fish and wildlife, swimming, boating, industrial water supply, and others) as established by the state. Furthermore, a provision is included to force dischargers to go beyond the technology-based standards if those efforts alone won't result in meeting the water quality standards.

In response to the expressed goals of the Clean Water Act, most states have designated nearly all of their lakes and streams for fishing and swimming even though many of those bodies of water don't currently meet the necessary water quality criteria. In general, the EPA allows lakes and streams to be classified for uses that would result in the toleration of greater pollution only if the state concerned can present solid evidence that standards for fishing and swimming could never be met. A further provision of the act — and, in the past, a general policy of the EPA — discourages any degradation of very clean water that already exceeds the quality standards.

What the EPA Proposes

The EPA has suggested that, in the portion of the Clean Water Act requiring states to "demonstrate" that a stream should be downgraded in quality classification (because of human-induced conditions, natural pollution, or substantial and widespread economic and social impact), the wording be changed to read "determine" — with the additional qualification that downgrading be allowed if the benefits of maintaining a higher classification "do not bear a reasonable relationship to the costs." This provision would allow states to downgrade classifications without EPA approval, and furthermore would make the lowering of designations easier because the economic criteria in the modified bill are exceedingly loose and fuzzy in their language.

Other key changes in the designation procedures include the elimination of the passage that requires standards to be upgraded to meet current use; the addition of a provision to allow degradation below standards as long as the existing use is maintained; the elimination of required public notification when a downgrading is proposed; and the removal of no-degradation language with reference to our national and state parks, wildlife refuges, and waters of exceptional ecological significance.

Another very important point in the proposed regulations is a provision for individual discharger variances based on economic hardship such as "likely loss of productivity, jobs, or financial stability." In its loosest sense, this provision could allow a variance in any situation where a polluting industry would have to spend money to meet standards!

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