The Clean Water Act turned 45 last month and for the last four and half decades it has improved protections for our drinking water, fishing spots, and the streams and rivers where our kids play and swim. While we’ve made progress over those decades, it’s clear there is still work to do. Since early summer, many in Southeastern North Carolina no longer go to the kitchen sink to get a glass of water. Bottled water replaced the tap after hundreds of thousands of citizens discovered that their drinking water was contaminated with Gen X, the latest in a line of cancer-causing chemicals made by DuPont and its subsidiary, Chemours.
Residents from across the coastal plain have united against plans to build a massive natural gas pipeline across hundreds of streams, rivers, and wetlands. What’s more important is what those folks are for: healthy streams, clean drinking water, and protections for sacred sites.
The protections provided by the act are under threat by politicians in Washington and Raleigh. In Washington, control of the Environmental Protection Agency has been turned over to lobbyists and representatives of the polluting industries whose pollution the agency is supposed to protect against, essentially putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse.
High on polluters’ list of laws to dismantle is the Clean Water Act. The reason is simple — the Act is based on the principle that nobody has the right to pollute their neighbors drinking water or fishing hole, that industries are accountable for the controlling their pollution at its source. It’s cheaper to dump chemicals like Gen X into the Cape Fear or to dig through streams and wetlands than it is to accept responsibility for pollution and to avoid it. As the pollution flows downstream, it becomes someone else’s problem.
And with polluters at the helm, the EPA has announced plans to dramatically restrict the reach of the Clean Water Act. By redefining what waters are protected, EPA intends to strip protections from small streams and wetlands that are essential to protecting our creeks, streams, and rivers as well as the communities that depend on them.
The proposed new rule is expected early next year. Much is at stake.
Without Clean Water Act protections, small streams and wetlands will be vulnerable to unchecked pollution or complete destruction. If EPA is successful in repealing long-standing protections, massive projects, such as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, could get the go ahead to destroy streams and wetlands without ensuring that communities downstream are protected. It is inevitable that many of the hundreds of streams and wetlands that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would pollute would lose protection under EPA’s plans to abandon its responsibilities.
The actions of politicians in Raleigh demonstrate why federal protections are essential. Over the last six years, the legislature has repeatedly cut the Department of Environmental Quality’s budget — shrinking the agency charged with protecting our streams and rivers. As a result, our state agency staff are hamstrung and short-handed as they deal with the threats to clean water posed by projects like the pipeline or disasters like Gen X.
The threat from Raleigh is illustrated in the bungled response by the legislature to the Gen X disaster. After the state learned that hundreds of thousands of citizens in North Carolina had been drinking contaminated water, the governor requested $2.6 million of additional funding to rebuild the Department of Environmental Quality staff to address Gen X and other pollution tainting our rivers across North Carolina. Critically, the Department of Environmental Quality is the only entity with the authority to effectively respond to crises like the one that has unfolded in the Cape Fear River. Instead, the General Assembly awarded $185,000 to the Cape Fear Public Utility and $250,000 to the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Rather than fix the problem, the General Assembly chose to fund studies to monitor it.
Studying the contamination of our rivers and streams is no substitute for enforcing the protections provided under the Clean Water Act. Polluters would like nothing more than to put the burden of pollution on the families and communities living downstream who are frequently unaware and vulnerable. Over the next several months, EPA will take another step towards that goal. Politicians in Raleigh will continue to limit the abilities of the only agency able and willing to hold polluters accountable. It will fall on the citizens of North Carolina to stand up for our drinking water, fishing holes, creeks, and streams — as thousands have done in response to Gen X contamination and the proposed pipeline. It is our duty to tell our representatives that our families and communities deserve clean water protected from pollution.
Geoff Gisler is a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.