More than half of all American waterways are 'impaired by pollution': study
A recent study commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act’s passage shows exactly how the U.S. is failing its commitment to eliminating pollution in the country’s navigable waterways, defined by the EPA as “the waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” The report by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, titled “The Clean Water Act: Promises Half Kept at the Half-Century Mark,” delves into the millions of miles of rivers, streams, and creeks; millions of acres of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs; and thousands of square miles of bays, estuaries, and harbors that have been assessed based on the most recent Integrated Waters Report submitted to the EPA. Much of these waters are considered “impaired with pollution,” which means they fail “to meet standards for swimming and recreation, aquatic life, fish consumption, or as drinking water sources.”
Of the 1,426,619 miles of rivers, streams, and creeks that have been assessed, 725,856 miles are considered impaired with pollution, accounting for 51%. More than half of the 20,432,238 acres of lakes, ponds, and reservoirs assessed similarly are considered impaired with pollution. Bays, estuaries, and harbors fared better, with about a quarter of the 76,555 square miles assessed considered impaired with pollution.
These numbers reflect only assessed waterways. There is still much we don’t know because not all waterways have been properly examined. The Environmental Integrity Project points out that 73% of rivers and streams still haven’t been assessed based off the latest Integrated Waters Report. That lack of accountability is something that has plagued the EPA and specifically the Clean Water Act for decades.
According to the Environmental Integrity Project report, it’s been more than three decades since a majority of the EPA’s water pollution standards have been updated, despite the fact that, by law, they must be reviewed every five years. Additional data based on state-by-state assessments show that some states, including California, Louisiana, and Washington, lack sufficient data to even produce key information such as how many miles of rivers and streams are polluted.
Water sadly isn’t the only concern for Americans—and the world at large— worried about pollution. According to a recently released survey of worldwide air quality in 2021, not a single country meets new U.N. standards established in September. Those standards concern six pollutants: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution impacts the most vulnerable communities. “In 2021, the deaths of 40,000 children under the age of five were directly linked to [fine particulate matter] air pollution.” When it comes to the U.S., the WHO explicitly blamed fossil fuel reliance for the amount of fine particulate matter concentrations increasing by 7% in 2021 compared with 2020.
Indeed, fossil fuels can be linked to waterway contamination as well. The Environmental Integrity Project report slams outdated oil and gas standards and highlights a recent case in Lake Charles, Louisiana in which nine chemical companies and oil refineries agreed to pay $5.5 million—a fraction of the EPA response’s price tag—for contaminating the Calcasieu River estuary. The settlement follows a slew of legal challenges brought by Louisiana and the federal government against more than a dozen industrial plants in the region that polluted the Calcasieu river basin. The EPA has been investigating contamination in the region since 1999.
The Environmental Integrity Project recommends five ways to address waterway pollution like the contamination seen in Lake Charles: update the Clean Water Act more frequently, eliminate loopholes that allow for agricultural runoff and “non-point” pollution, impose more consistent guidelines to states so that missing data is no longer an issue, streamline cleanup plans, and boost funding to allow adequate staff to address water pollution issues. In both air quality and water quality, accountability is key.
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