Ensuring clean water: We're not there yet

Posted: October 31, 2002

DISTRACTED BY the Ira Einhorn trial and the Beltway sniper drama around Washington, most Philadelphians were unaware that Oct. 18 marked the 30th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act.

This landmark piece of environmental and public-health legislation is arguably the cornerstone of our nation's environmental policy.

Although we have made important strides in water quality since the advent of the Clean Water Act in 1972, we have fallen far short of its goals. Approximately 39 percent of our rivers and 46 percent of our lakes are still too polluted for safe fishing or swimming.

Pennsylvania has issued a statewide fish consumption advisory due to contamination caused by substances such as mercury, PCBs, chlordane, dioxins, and DDT and its byproducts.

To make matters worse, my group, PennEnvironment, recently reviewed EPA compliance data and found that polluters in Pennsylvania continue to violate their Clean Water Act permits for highly hazardous chemicals. Over the most recent three-year period studied, nearly 25 percent of the state's facilities exceeded their permit limits at least once for chemicals known or suspected to cause serious human health effects.

Often, these aren't just a couple of drops above permitted level - facilities in Pennsylvania violated their Clean Water Act permits by an average of 249 percent. For example, facilities like Cerro Metal Products in Bellefonte, and Reliant Energy in East Wheatfield, had violations of 4,030 percent and 3,700 percent, respectively, in recent reporting periods.

On top of this, Pennsylvania facilities repeatedly break the law. Ambler Borough exceeded its permit during 21 reporting periods over the three years studied in its dumping into the Wissahickon Creek. And Zinc Corp. of America, located in Palmerton, had more violations than any facility in the nation, with 99 violations during the years in question.

Clearly, we have a long way to go in order to meet the goals of the Clean Water Act.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration is turning a blind eye to these facts. Instead of working to strengthen the Clean Water Act, the president's staff is pushing ahead with proposals that will increase the amount of highly hazardous chemicals going into our waterways. This includes a proposal to slash the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement budget. The administration's efforts would take more than 200 environmental cops off the beat, making enforcement even more difficult.

Clean water is necessary for a healthy environment and for protecting the public's health - and it's just plain good politics. A recent poll by the League of Conservation Voters showed that water quality is the top environmental concern of Pennsylvanians, with nearly 90 percent of respondents saying that they support "tightening standards on the amount of pollution allowed to be released into bodies of water that serve as sources of drinking water."

Instead of kowtowing to polluters, it would benefit the administration to listen to voters, and for all of our politicians to ensure the strongest clean water standards that will protect our waterways for many generations to come. *

David Masur is the director of PennEnvironment, a statewide environmental organization (www.pennenvironment.org).

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