Clean Water Act: Industry Influence, Political Environment Dangerously 'Different' 40 Years After Passage, Warn Advocates

Waterfront property didn't offer the same draw in the early 1970s as it does today. Smelly and unsightly waterways -- a flaming Cuyahoga River and a dying Lake Ontario, for example -- repulsed Americans and repressed adjacent home values.

But also very different four decades ago: the climate on Capitol Hill.

Americans' leaders came together at the time in support of cleaning up lakes and rivers. Forty years ago this week, they passed the Clean Water Act, landmark legislation that environmental advocates warn may now be at risk due to powerful industry influence and a lack of bipartisanship in Washington.

"It's hard to imagine," Karl Coplan, a law professor at Pace University in New York, said during a press call Wednesday. "But you couldn't show your face in Congress if you were against environmental protection. It was so different than what we see today."

Three major environmental laws came in fairly quick succession during the years following Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, considered by many to be the clarion call of the modern environmental movement, and the first Earth Day: the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act, both in 1970, then the Clean Water Act in 1972.

"I like to think the third was the charm," Coplan said.

Coplan recalled while growing up in New York how anyone who fell into the Hudson River was immediately sent to the hospital for shots. "Now there's an annual swim all the way around Manhattan," he said. "It's all a direct result of the implementation of the Clean Water Act."

Of course, the country's waterways still have a long way to go. An estimated one-third of American waters remain unfit for swimming -- down from two-thirds before the act. As The Huffington Post reported last month, some urban waters continue to be exceedingly smelly and unsightly -- complete with floating condoms and tampons as well as toxic chemicals.

But people like Coplan worry that the progress made may well be reversed.

"Unfortunately, the House Republicans and corporate interests are fighting hard to roll back the Clean Water Act," Steve Fleischli, senior attorney for water programs at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, said on Wednesday's call. "They want to defund the EPA so it can't implement or enforce the law as it's written."

Fleischli pointed to threatened protections for wetlands and streams, the source of drinking water for 117 million people in the continental United States.

The problem list, according to advocates, includes stalled storm-water protections, restricted funds to determine if coal ash is a hazardous waste and inadequate oversight of expanded natural gas drilling.

Scott Edwards, co-director of Food and Water Justice at the nonprofit Food and Water Watch, highlighted another common concern: a tendency of the government to "let industrial agriculture off the hook."

While the Clean Water Act has generally been successful in reducing pollution from industrial and municipal sources such as power plants and sewers, Edwards added in a conversation with The Huffington Post that it's done little for agricultural runoff -- chemicals applied to crops or manure from factory farms.

Lawsuits over industrial agriculture and the Clean Water Act are pending across the country, including poultry farm cases in West Virginia and Maryland.

Environmental advocates argue that the scope of the law has narrowed in recent years due to misguided Supreme Court decisions and confusing regulatory guidance. And they say it will erode further if Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wins the presidential race.

In discussing agricultural policy, Romney highlights President Barack Obama's "overzealous efforts to extend the Clean Water Act to rainwater in ditches."

His plan would require Congress to approve new major regulations proposed by federal agencies, as part of an effort to reverse what he calls "the massive overregulation that President Obama has pursued."

"A Romney Administration will appoint strong leaders to handle regulatory agencies," the Romney Campaign responded to questions from the American Soybean Association. "These leaders will be chosen because they understand the private sector."

During Tuesday's debate, Romney frequently touted his "life in the private sector," but his first private sector client is probably the most despised company among proponents of clean water: Monsanto, the manufacturer of products like Agent Orange and Roundup weed killer. The Nation reported in September that the "romance between Romney and Monsanto" began in 1977 and continues today with Monsanto friends and partners currently packing his 11-member Agricultural Advisory Committee.

The Obama administration isn't void of Big Ag ties either, as reflected by the appointment of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a major Monsanto supporter during his time as the governor of Iowa.

"It's been very difficult for Congress to do practically anything constructive in the past four years," said Pace's Coplan. "We need to make it un-American to be against protecting America’s waterbodies."



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