Clean Water Act Faces its Biggest Threat

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. This critical piece of legislation has been fraught with challenges, even from the time of its inception. President Richard Nixon, who pushed hard for the legislation, actually had to veto the Clean Water Act in October of 1972 due to budgetary concerns. Congress eventually overrode the veto and the Act became law on October 18, 1972. The law was created to regulate water pollution with the ultimate national goal of completely eliminating all pollution into public waterways. While hugely successful, the Clean Water Act now faces another threat, its biggest in 40 years: the EPA’s attempts to gut strong regulations that worked and replace them with unproven pollution trading provisions.

The Clean Water Act begins with the idea that it is illegal to pollute and, as a nation, we should strive to eliminate water pollution from our lakes, rivers and bays. Unfortunately, the fundamental principal behind the Clean Water Act is often ignored. Water pollution trading schemes are a disastrous substitute for proven means of regulating harmful chemical discharges into our waterways. These schemes are part of a market-based approach to cleaning the environment.

Recently, the financial market has turned its interests toward public resources, including water. Market-based “solutions” to the problem of pollution are based on a system of credit accumulation that allow polluters to amass the “right” to pollute and trade that right as if it were a commodity. These broker-driven deals are promoted using phrases like, “cap-and-trade,” “free-market solution” and “internalize the externalities,” but they are merely carving a place for pollution into the cost of doing business. They give polluters leeway to pollute by creating a market for it.

The EPA’s 2010 plan to clean up the Chesapeake Bay established a Total Maximum Daily Load or TMDL for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution discharged into the Bay. Unfortunately, the TMDL will be undermined and this plan would actually increase the amount of discharge into the Chesapeake Bay watershed by creating a system of market-based offsets that polluters can use or trade. The EPA and the Obama Administration are promoting this “pay-to-pollute” program in the Chesapeake as a model that could be replicated around the country, including provisions that would address nitrogen and phosphorous runoff.

In order to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and honor the real principles behind it, we have decided to take action to protect it. Food & Water Watch joined with Friends of the Earth in order to take a stand on this issue. Represented by Columbia Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic, we have filed a joint lawsuit challenging the legality of pollution trading under the Clean Water Act. This suit will force the EPA to remove pollution trading provisions from its Chesapeake Bay watershed plan and instead rely on upholding the regulations included in the Clean Water Act and enforce comprehensive cleanup standards to decrease the amount of pollution in the Bay.

Trading the opportunity to pollute our waterways is a violation of the public trust. The collapse of the housing market in the last few years was an indication of what happens when financial markets are left unchecked to treat our common resources like widgets. Hedge funders shouldn’t be able to take advantage of a water pollution crisis in order to make profits. Our waterways will be worth more to us if we can protect them from the free-market principles that seek to destroy them.

Help us protect America’s waterways and get our Clean Water Act together!

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