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Clean Water Act at 40: Unfulfilled Promises?

CWFNC staff

Happy 40th Anniversary, Clean Water Act! Yours for 40 more years of renewed enforcement and justice, Belinda, Hope, Maribel, and Katie

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act is the most important single federal law for protection of surface waters, setting up national thresholds which the Environmental Protection Agency could enforce, though most rulemaking and permitting is delegated to state agencies. Its creators intended for all U.S. waterways to be “fishable and swimmable” by 1983. They aimed to empower residents to actively participate in protecting water resources at a number of stages in the process – from rulemaking to water quality standards to permits for individual polluting facilities – and even allowed for citizen law suits when state regulators failed.

However, on this 40th anniversary, the Clean Water Act faces many challenges, and we as citizens have a lot of work to do to make sure the Clean Water Act is enforced and remains a strong tool for us to use.

  • Polluter campaign donations, lobbyists and job threats are even stronger at the state level, increasingly compromising enforcement of Clean Water Act goals, weakening standards and permits, and creating a race to the bottom. The disproportionate impacts of pollution on downstream communities are often ignored.
  • At the national level, exemptions have been granted to some of the most powerful (and polluting) industries. The Oil and Gas industry exemptions granted by the 2005 Energy Policy Act are a painful example of how lobbyists have managed to undermine the protections for communities under the Clean Water Act.
  • Variances to standards granted at the state level are often abused with little oversight by federal regulators. In North Carolina, many coal-fired power plants and other big polluters are allowed variances on the temperature of their discharge, creating hot zones that can kill organisms and cause evaporative loss of water downstream.

These are just a few of the problems we face as a state – and a country – on the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. As we celebrate its 40 years, will you join us to work for stricter standards, better enforcement, and renewed prioritization of protections for downstream users during the next 40 years?

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