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  • Roger Witherspoon

As Clean Water Act turns 30, much was done; more remains

By Roger Witherspoon

The Journal News (Westchester County, NY)

October 19, 2002 Saturday

Many fear changes to law will weaken efforts to clean up

The Journal News

Thirty years ago yesterday, the nation embarked on an unprecedented effort to stop

the destruction of the nation's wetlands and streams and the wholesale degradation

of the Hudson River and other major waterways.

The passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act over the veto of then-President Richard

Nixon was intended to make every water body in the nation safe for swimming,

drinking and fishing. The newly created federal Environmental Protection Agency

began working with the states to end the unfettered dumping of raw and

undertreated sewage and commercial wastes. The act also launched a new attempt

to control land use, construction, and agricultural and industrial practices that

created toxic runoffs into pristine waterways.

In many respects, the act has been a great success. It has led to the revitalization of

many waterways once considered dead, such as Lake Erie and parts of the Hudson

River. It launched a regulatory process requiring an environmental analysis for

construction and dumping projects. And it has ended much of the dumping of raw

sewage that made 75 percent of the nation's rivers and lakes unfit for bathing or


"The waters of this country are cleaner and safer now, thanks to the Clean Water

Act," said Jane Kenney, EPA regional administrator for the New York area. "Thirty

years ago, there was a crisis. Lakes were dying, and the water was too dirty for

swimming. Now, we are developing more innovative solutions to water quality


But after three decades of effort, the drive for cleaner waters has failed to reach

many of its primary goals, achieved uneven results in major problem areas, and

become the subject of contention between the Bush administration and

environmental groups, who disagree on the best way to address continuing issues.

EPA officials say the administration is holding up some enforcement rules and

reviewing key provisions of the act in an effort to make it more effective in

protecting the nation's water. Critics, including New York state officials and a

coalition of more than 1,000 environmental organizations, contend the

administration appears to be weakening the act to make it easier for businesses to

resume polluting the nation's waterways.

"The Bush administration is systematically dismantling the tools that brought us this

far: cleaning up raw sewage, protecting wetlands, and defining those rivers and

lakes eligible for protection, said Betsy Otto, co-chair of the Clean Water Network.

Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA's deputy assistant administrator for water, said the

contention that the administration intends to gut or weaken the act "is a

mischaracterization of what we are planning to propose." He said it was unfair for the

environmental community make such criticisms before any action has been taken.

There is "confusion," Grumbles said, as to what waters should be covered by the act,

"and we plan to clarify it. We don't know where we will come out on this issue, but

we recognize the value and importance of wetlands. The only question is, to what

extent do we offer protection?"

The act called for people to be able to swim in all waterways by 1983 and for the

elimination of toxic discharges by 1985.

In 1972, more than 75 percent of the nation's waterways were unfit for drinking,

swimming or fishing. By 1988, a biannual EPA report showed that figure had dropped

to just under 40 percent. It has held at that level for several years, but the agency's

2002 report shows that 45 percent of the nation's waters are now unfit for public


The primary causes of the increased contamination are sewage overflows from aged

sewage and stormwater systems, and pollution caused by runoff. The latter has

increased as more and more open land is covered by hard surfaces from roads and

developments, eliminating the natural filtering by the earth.

"Every seven months," said Kenney of the EPA, "the oil we spill from our cars that

washes into our waterways amounts to more than the oil spilled by the Exxon


Water pollution has turned out to be far more difficult to eliminate than was

envisioned when the ambitious act was passed 30 years ago. The development of

treatment programs to reduce sewage in the river and the curtailing of industrial

discharges restored much of the Hudson River's vitality, for example, but they were

only a partial success.

"The act was responsible for helping us to restore the Hudson from an open sewer to

a river that is being visited by record numbers of people, and where you can now

swim for the first time in decades," said Alex Matthiessen, director of the Garrison-

based environmental group Riverkeeper. "But there are still serious problems with

cities like New York and Albany, where they have combined sanitation and sewage

systems, and every time there is a big rain you get an overflow and untreated

sewage in the river. You cannot swim near New York City for a couple of days after a

rain because of raw sewage in the Hudson."

In the past five years, there were 261 untreated discharges by sewer systems in

Westchester County, according to an analysis of state and federal records by the

Citizens Campaign for the Environment in White Plains. As a result of those

discharges and surface runoff, nine of the reservoirs in Westchester and Putnam

counties are considered "impaired" and not fit for drinking without treatment, said

Jim Tierney, the state's watershed inspector general.

While some environmentalists remain highly critical of the act's results - John Cronin,

resident scholar in environmental studies at Pace University, called it "an abysmal

failure" - others acknowledge there have been successes. "The act accomplished a

great deal," said Andy Mele, director of the Poughkeepsie-based environmental

group Clearwater, which spearheaded the drive for the 1972 law. "Its crowning

achievement was in the management of wastewater. It opened the door for the state

and federal funds to combine and build sewage treatment plants."

Yet, all are united in their concern for the future. There is a fear that continued

efforts to clean the rivers and waterways may be curtailed if there are significant

changes in the Clean Water Act's major provisions, according to the Clean Water

Network, a coalition of more than 1,000 environmental organizations. The concern

stems from testimony by EPA officials before the Senate Environmental Committee

earlier this month that the agency intends to redefine what waters are covered by

the act.

Local environmental groups, joined by the state League of Women Voters, yesterday

called on Gov. George Pataki and state agencies to enforce the act in New York and

renew their commitment to upholding the law in the Hudson River Valley and the

New York City watershed.

Grumbles said the EPA would have public hearings on the appropriate scope of the

act. He said he believed it would involve tributaries and certain types of isolated and

adjacent waters.

Reach Roger Witherspoon at or 914-696-8566.

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