The Clean Water Act Has Been Drained
By Monica Medina, Founder and Publisher, Our Daily Planet
The fall of 2019 will be remembered for the Ukrainian scandal and the impeachment investigation. But for many Americans, this should be remembered as the time when our nation’s clean water crisis became crystal clear. This is not just a Flint problem. It is a national one. Sadly, the Clean Water Act has been reduced down by courts, the regulated community, and the Trump Administration to a trace of what Congress originally intended. These last few weeks have seen a torrent of actions to shrink the Act’s reach and effectiveness, much to the detriment of tens of millions of Americans.
First, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Corps of Engineers repealed the 2015 Clean Water rule that had finally defined “waters of the United States” or “WOTUS” to include wetlands and other smaller water bodies and thus had expanded the reach of the prohibitions on water pollution. Until the Obama Administration issued the 2015 rule, the scope of the Clean Water Act was the subject of endless litigation and the Supreme Court had ultimately significantly narrowed the reach of the Act. As a result of the Trump Administration rollback, in December the prior narrow rule will go back into effect. It stated that the Clean Water Act covers only waterways with “relatively permanent” surface water connections to navigable waters, which would not include most wetlands, or ditches and intermittent streams, and other lesser water bodies. But the size of the water body does not make it any less harmful when it is polluted with chemicals.
Second, the Administration also just announced that it will significantly weaken two Obama Administration rules on the disposal of coal ash and on the disposal of contaminated water from coal plant operations — loosening both the timeline for compliance and exempting some plants entirely. There are currently 450 coal ash sites around the country and 95 percent of them are unlined, two-thirds lie within five feet of groundwater and 92 percent leak more than federal health standards allow.
Under the prior rule, coal plants had to clean up their coal ash ponds by April of 2020 but now they can get up to 8 years more time. There are serious consequences such as toxic pollutants seeping into groundwater just below the unlined coal ash disposal “ponds.” Coal ash is full of toxic metals as is the wastewater from coal plants — it is dangerous stuff. And these coal ash ponds are currently leaking into the groundwater and rivers and streams or overflowing or running off into water bodies during severe storms when rainwater causes open coal ash ponds to overflow. This deplorable situation was about to come to an end — but the Trump Administration just gave coal plants many more years to clean up their dangerous mess.
Then the Supreme Court heard a case last week that could open up a massive loophole in the Clean Water Act by allowing polluted water to be “dumped” without a permit and without being treated into groundwater sitting below the surface even if the dirty water ends up in a WOTUS. If the Court sides with the Trump Administration, it would mean much more pollution in even those large bodies of water that the Act was supposed to keep clean. Polluters could simply “flush” their dirty water through a water “body” that is not covered by the Act — like wetlands and groundwater. And because the WOTUS rule is being narrowed, many more water bodies will not be covered by the Act now — giving polluters a myriad of ways to legally get around the Clean Water Act.
And last but not least, there is a new clean water crisis surrounding the contamination of groundwater and rivers by the “forever” chemicals called per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances or “PFAS” for short. Nationwide, PFAS contamination is found at 1,361 locations in 49 states — and in a variety of sources including community water systems, groundwater sources, military bases, airports, and industrial sites. The bottom line is that more than 100 million Americans may have PFAS in their drinking water. Currently, there is no requirement that PFAS be removed as a pollutant under the Act — there are simply voluntary “guidelines” for safety. Even low doses of PFAS in drinking water have been linked to many serious health problems such as an increased risk of cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, liver and thyroid disease. Huge amounts of water contaminated with harmful PFAS chemicals are being legally dumped into major waterways because water treatment plants and other industrial facilities don’t have to remove it. Even armed with the knowledge of the pervasiveness of PFAS contamination and its potential health risks, Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency, and PFAS polluters have all failed to do anything about it.