Chad Love: Dirty Water Action

Way back in 1972, when calling yourself a "liberal" or a "conservative" didn't quite have the knee-jerk connotations it does now, Congress passed and Richard Nixon signed into law (reluctantly, after a failed veto) the Clean Water Act. Because that's what you do when your rivers are so polluted they catch on fire.

And it's not hyperbole to say that in the three decades since its passage the Clean Water Act (in tandem with the Clean Air Act) has been largely responsible for the angling opportunities we now enjoy. Along the way many recreational angling groups like B.A.S.S. and Trout Unlimited have supported and fought for the act's goals. But thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions that severely limit the act's regulatory scope, pollution rates are rising once again.

From the latest story in the New York Times.

Thousands of the nation's largest water polluters are outside the Clean Water Act's reach because the Supreme Court has left uncertain which waterways are protected by that law, according to interviews with regulators. _As a result, some businesses are declaring that the law no longer applies to them. And pollution rates are rising. Companies that have spilled oil, carcinogens and dangerous bacteria into lakes, rivers and other waters are not being prosecuted, according to Environmental Protection Agency regulators working on those cases, who estimate that more than 1,500 major pollution investigations have been discontinued or shelved in the last four years.

"We are, in essence, shutting down our Clean Water programs in some states," said Douglas F. Mundrick, an E.P.A. lawyer in Atlanta. "This is a huge step backward. When companies figure out the cops can't operate, they start remembering how much cheaper it is to just dump stuff in a nearby creek." The court rulings causing these problems focused on language in the Clean Water Act that limited it to "the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters" of the United States. For decades, "navigable waters" was broadly interpreted by regulators to include many large wetlands and streams that connected to major rivers. But the two decisions suggested that waterways that are entirely within one state, creeks that sometimes go dry, and lakes unconnected to larger water systems may not be "navigable waters" and are therefore not covered by the act -- even though pollution from such waterways can make its way into sources of drinking water._

So industrial polluters can thumb their nose at the EPA and continue to dump their waste in the nearest creek, pond, river, lake, ditch, playa, wetland, slough or marsh, just as long as it doesn't fit that narrow legal description of "navigable waters." And apparently there's not a damn thing anyone can do about it. "But what about the states?" you ask. "Isn't it better to keep the Feds out of our business?"

Well, no. Most state environmental regulatory agencies are, quite frankly, a joke. As a reporter I covered the industrial swine factories that invaded my home state of Oklahoma some years ago and I am a firsthand witness to how complicit and/or powerless state regulatory agencies are in the face of the corporate hired guns. Back then one of these lobbyists favorite tactics was to scare people into thinking that evil, faceless federal regulators were going to shut down family farms. Nice to see things haven't changed...

In the last two years, some members of Congress have tried to limit the impact of the court decisions by introducing legislation known as the Clean Water Restoration Act...But a broad coalition of industries has often successfully lobbied to prevent the full Congress from voting on such proposals by telling farmers and small-business owners that the new legislation would permit the government to regulate rain puddles and small ponds and layer new regulations on how they dispose of waste. "The game plan is to emphasize the scary possibilities," said one member of the Waters Advocacy Coalition, which has fought the legislation and is supported by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Association of Home Builders and other groups representing industries affected by the Clean Water Act. "If you can get Glenn Beck to say that government storm troopers are going to invade your property, farmers in the Midwest will light up their congressmen's switchboards," said the coalition member.

So we're now taking getting environmental advice from Glenn Beck? Is that going to be the legacy of the Clean Water Act? In the space of 38 years to go from the passage of a landmark piece of environmental legislation that has worked brilliantly to allowing it to be gutted because some television pundit has convinced some of us that everything about the Federal government is bad? If something as basic as the idea of clean water can be subjugated, warped and twisted into frothing political screed, what does that say about the future?