The Clean Water Act’s 40th Anniversary

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act, more commonly referred to as the Clean Water Act, just turned 40 last week. The Act was passed in hopes that people would have safe bodies of water to swim and surf in by 1983. 1983 came and went, and unfortunately people still get sick when exposed to some bodies of water. However, the Clean Water Act has done a lot of good.


The Act requires industrial, governmental, and agricultural facilities to apply for permits in order to discharge pollutants into any surface body of water. As a result of this system, chemical and industrial pollution in our surface waters has decreased dramatically. With modernization of sewage treatment and management, many streams, and, in turn, beaches have become much healthier.


That said, there are those who would limit the EPA’s power to comply with this Act. Currently, the Administrator of the EPA can replace an old water quality standard with a newer one that better reflects our knowledge of new pollutants and more current environmental research. However, Representative Mica (R-FL) recently introduced the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act (H.R. 2018) that would limit this power if state officials do not agree with the EPA’s assessment.


Representative Mica’s goal in promoting this bill seems to be primarily economic. The bill contains a provision requiring the Administrator of the EPA to post analyses on the impact that environmental regulation has on employment levels. There is no question that environmental regulation does have a negative impact on economic activity in the short term. It is far cheaper for an industry to heedlessly pollute than it is for one to maintain environmentally safe business practices. The problem that these businesses also require a healthy environment to reside in in order to prosper in the long run.


The impact that this bill would have on the EPA’s ability to regulate is unclear. Since each state’s government is unique, there are likely some states that would remain relatively unchanged. In other states, however, the EPA would lose a vital veto power over the state government concerning water quality standards.


This bill reflects an unfortunate trade off that we face every day. With employment levels remaining depressed, it is not hard to see why some members of congress are considering limiting environmental regulations. Whether you support this bill or not, you might consider writing or calling your local Representative and let him or her know how you feel about it.


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