Congress must clean environmental act

Earth Day ironically marks a day of ambivalence. Nationwide, Americans celebrate the day with conscious efforts to clean up wastes and recycle material. In Congress, this is matched by empty rhetoric about saving the earth’s resources, even though it is not aggressive in pursuing environmental policies. This month, the Senate denied President Clinton’s $568 million request for additional funds to improve water quality nationwide. The Clinton administration’s much-needed cleaning initiative aims to combat the sources of water pollution, which are often ignored and relatively unregulated under the Clean Water Act of 1972.
The Clean Water Act was the first truly broad set of federal laws that promised to stop water pollution in the United States. It aimed to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into American waters within 13 years. The Act also stated that water safety for fishing and swimming would be achieved by 1983. The history of the Act has been a mix of both progress and unfulfilled promise.
The Act has already caused significant reduction in pollution from single identifiable sources, such as industrial and municipal waste. As a result, 66 percent of the rivers and lakes are safe for fishing and swimming today — almost twice an improvement from the water quality 25 years ago. More than 1 billion pounds of toxic pollutants are also removed each year, and almost 900 million tons of untreated sewage are no longer discharged into the nation’s waters. Despite much environmental progress, pollutants remain a major concern.
Studies now show most water pollution comes from diffuse sources, such as the agricultural and urban runoff that accumulate across entire watersheds. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. states fail to use the Clean Water Act to protect their watersheds. A majority of states meet only partial requirements of the law and have little or no effective non-point pollution control. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently reported that more than half the nation’s 2,000 watersheds have moderate to serious water quality problems, largely due to polluted runoff.
The failure of the Clean Water Act partly results from regulations that are nebulous and because the enforcement is slack. The processes of phasing out and inhibiting toxic chemicals and the reclamation and restoration of clean water to acceptable levels is an extremely slow and tedious process. The insidious nature of such compounds is borne by the fact that they do not degrade easily, and therefore, persist in the environment. Furthermore, since the vast majority of these chemicals are human-made, most species have not developed the ability to break down or detoxify them in their bodies.
The Clean Water Act is not just for posterity’s sake. Last summer’s outbreak of fish-killing microbe Pfiesteria piscicida in Chesapeake Bay is a reminder that today’s water pollution problem is largely due to the inaction of the federal and state agencies that are charged to protect citizens. But Congress must do more to improve the nation’s water before the future holds irreversible conditions of health hazards.