It may be hard to remember these days, but the nation that led the world on to the stage of modern environmental protection was the United States.
Starting in the early 70s, the US Congress enacted bold bipartisan laws to protect America’s wildlife, air and water. America’s skies cleared. Waterfronts across the nation went from blighted dumping grounds into vital civic hearts.
And, in this journey from smog to light, America’s economy thrived. Our environment improved even as our economy grew. Both Republican and Democratic administrations upheld this commitment to a clean environment, and it endured for decades.
Following the 2016 election, polluting-industry veterans commandeered the country’s environmental agencies with one central aim: make pollution free again.
The assaults have been fast, furious and many. But the latest one stands out above, or below, the others. Administration officials have now targeted the Clean Water Act, perhaps the most fundamental environmental law ever enacted by the US Congress.
The law’s main mechanism is simple: before discharging waste into the nation’s waters, polluters must first try to clean it up.
So how did the former lobbyists running the agencies sabotage the act? By radically shrinking it. By its terms, the act only protects waters “of the United States”. But according to this administration, waters “of” the United States does not mean waters in the United States. In their view, the Clean Water Act only applies to a subset of waters, and the rest are unprotected.
The scope of the contraction is staggering. In some states out west, 80% of stream miles would lose their protection. Drinking water sources for millions of Americans would be at risk from pollution. The administration’s redefinition would leave millions of acres open for destruction – wetlands that buffer communities from storms, serve as homes for wildlife and nurseries for fish and shellfish, and act as natural water filters.
This is the single largest loss of clean water protections that America has ever seen. And the timing couldn’t be worse. From lead contamination in drinking water to the proliferating threat of toxic industrial chemicals, new threats to water quality are emerging daily.
Science should drive the response to these threats. In this administration, however, scientists are not in the driver’s seat. They’re not even in the vehicle. They have been exiled far away. Ideology is at the wheel instead.
The lovely city where I live – Charleston, South Carolina – faces a fragile future due to rising seas, powerful hurricanes and “rain-bomb” storms.
Wetlands are vital for flood protection – a single acre can absorb a million gallons or more of floodwater. Yet even in Charleston’s most flood-prone watershed, where homes are so routinely flooded that the city is buying some residents out, developers seek to fill hundreds of acres of wetlands and build more in these areas that naturally flood.
Those wetlands are far more likely to be destroyed without federal protection. By providing a nationwide floor of protection, the Clean Water Act provides a level playing field for the 50 states.
Who loses when that protection is removed? The people living downstream. They will have dirtier drinking water and more flooding. This is especially true in the south, where state environmental agency staff are routinely underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed by pro-polluting politics and industries.
That is exactly why Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. The nation’s waters were an open sewer, with some rivers literally catching fire with pollution. Fed-up with state-by-state inaction, the nation demanded a national response – and got it.
Now the administration wants to scrap all that by only defending the very largest rivers and declaring open season on the smaller tributaries upstream. That’s like trying to address heart disease by ignoring the blood that travels through it.
Fortunately, citizens are entitled to a second opinion. Whether the administration’s moves to gut the Clean Water Act are legal and based on the proper factors will be decided in court. Likely to start soon, the cases could take years to resolve and ultimately reach the US supreme court. How much damage this self-inflicted wound will cause in the meantime remains to be seen.