What you can do about EPA's attack on clean water

The Environmental Protection Agency is being rightly criticized for its slow-motion plan to address emerging toxic chemicals in America’s drinking water. Unfortunately, it has managed to move at breakneck speed to gut our nation’s most critical and longstanding water protections: the Clean Water Act.

The administration recently announced a plan to roll back clean water safeguards that have protected our communities and families for nearly 50 years.

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The scale of recklessness is astounding: crucial protections for more than 60 percent of our nation’s stream miles and millions of acres of wetlands would be stripped. The result would be more unpermitted toxic pollution contaminating our waterways and more catastrophic flooding damage. Since most of our drinking water comes from surface waters, this proposal would put drinking water for over 200 million Americans at risk — including seven out of 10 Southerners.

The main purpose of the rule is to benefit big industrial polluters who have proven time and time again that they cannot be trusted to regulate themselves. On the losing end: our broader national economy, which has grown strong with the Clean Water Act and relies on clean water to thrive. From the $130 billion tourism industry in the South to farmers, breweries and outdoor businesses, more pollution will mean higher costs for all of us living and working downstream.

Each year, millions of Americans head out to go fishing or hunting. From manufacturing companies to small businesses across the country, the money they spend in pursuit of their sport produces hundreds of billions in economic benefits every year. In total, the outdoor recreation economy alone supports 7.6 million jobs and results in $887 billion in consumer spending. Clean water has proven to be key not only to our health, but to our way of life.

Like many people, I grew up playing in creeks and streams and swimming my way through summer. I want my children, and theirs, to have the same access to clean water.

That’s why a bipartisan Congress passed the Clean Water Act in the first place back in 1972. Water pollution was a severe national problem that crossed state lines. The country needed a national solution, and the Clean Water Act delivered, setting consistent clean-up standards nationwide and giving local officials and citizens powerful tools to meet them.

The law has been a huge success. In fact, it’s been so successful at protecting America’s water and promoting a strong economy that it gets taken for granted. Without these national protections, polluters like sewage treatment facilities and industrial operations will be able to directly dump into our waterways without cleaning up to national standards. Powerful Washington lobbyists for large polluters are betting that being taken for granted means the Clean Water Act can be taken away, and no one will notice.

State agencies rely heavily on the Clean Water Act to keep our waters clean or hold polluters accountable. In fact, without the Clean Water Act’s national baseline safeguards, these officials will be poorly positioned to protect our waterways in the face of chronic underfunding and political pressure to go easy on polluters. Nowhere is that clearer than in the South.

State-level protections from Alabama to Georgia to the Carolinas have been eviscerated. Budgets and staff have faced drastic cuts, leaving local communities dependent on federal funding and oversight. If Washington politicians succeed in sabotaging the Clean Water Act, emaciated state agencies will be pitted in a “race to the bottom” of weakening standards — the same toxic dynamic Congress tried to fix in 1972.

We must continue to fight the administration’s attacks on America’s bedrock protections. We have had success so far, winning the first round of this fight in federal court.  But the attacks keep coming, and the real battle is just getting started.  We can’t win this war alone. 

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Fortunately, the public has a say. The law prevents the administration from doing all its hatchet work in secret. The public has until April 15 to comment on the proposal to expose vast swaths of America’s waters to new pollution.  This is a chance for Americans to speak out against Washington insiders’ extreme attack on our fundamental right to clean water. Each comment counts. Each one makes it that much harder for politicians and big polluters to disregard the science and throw our clean water away.

The path to prosperity does not lie in giving polluters free rein to expose our waterways to pollution and jeopardize the health of our families and communities. It lies in protecting our communities, our local economies and the clean water on which they depend. 

Blan Holman is the managing attorney of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Charleston office. Follow him on Twitter at @BlanHolman.