The Clean Water Act enhanced the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ability to restrict the pollution of streams, lakes, and rivers. The act was passed in 1972 as an amendment to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. Violations of the Clean Water Act have led to many prominent legal cases championed by environmental justice lawyers.
What does the Clean Water Act Do?
The original Clean Water Act objective was to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.” This was a lofty goal, as prior to the passing of the Clean Water Act, many watersheds throughout the US were heavily polluted. These are some of the key provisions of the Clean Water Act:
- Made it illegal to discharge pollutants from a point source into lakes, rivers, or streams
- Gave the EPA the authority to regulate wastewater standards
- Provided funding to sewage treatment plants
- Offered grants to universities for water research training
- Designated certain watersheds as study areas, like Lake Tahoe
- Required polluters to treat their wastewater streams
Essentially, the Clean Water Act expanded the federal government’s ability to regulate water pollution. Under the Act, the EPA received more power and resources to develop clean water standards.
Is the Clean Water Act Effective?
Since the establishment of the Clean Water Act, the federal government has spent over $600 billion on cleaning up our nation’s rivers, lakes, and streams. These efforts have yielded some positive results:
- Unsafe bacteria and other pollutants in national waterways have steadily decreased since the passing of the act
- Between 1962 and 2001, the share of rivers safe for fishing increased by 12 percent
- Since the passing of the Clean Water Act, our waterways have become generally safer for use
How Is the Clean Water Act Enforced?
The EPA uses a variety of methods to enforce the Clean Water Act, including:
- National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits: Many industries produce water pollutants. The EPA tracks these emissions with NPDES permits. These permits must be reinstated every five years.
- Water quality monitoring: The EPA oversees the monitoring of drinking water systems to ensure that they’re safe for use.
- Clean Water Act compliance monitoring: The EPA works with federal, tribal, and state governments to ensure that they meet safe-water guidelines.
History of the Clean Water Act
Prior to the passing of the Clean Water Act, water pollution was regulated at the state level. This approach wasn’t particularly effective. Cities and industrial manufacturers frequently offloaded waste into the nation’s waters.
Case Example: the Cuyahoga River
The Cuyahoga River, located in Cleveland, OH, is the poster child of historical water pollution mismanagement. Throughout the mid-1900s, the river was pumped full of toxic chemicals by multiple steel mills. The river was considered deadly to swim in. Several times in the 1900s, the Cuyahoga caught fire, causing damage to bridges and other infrastructure. Today, after the implementation of environmental regulations, the river is safe for use.
The Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948
In 1948, congress passed the first major water regulation bill – called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. Compared to the Clean Water Act, the 1948 Act was inefficient:
- Under the 1948 Act, it was difficult to punish polluters who violated clean water standards
- The 1948 Act did not establish federal clean water safety standards
- The 1948 Act lacked funding
The 1948 Act was eventually bolstered by another act in 1956 that increased funding and the prominence of research programs. However, even with these changes, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 failed to make significant progress.
The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969
Under the Richard Nixon administration, lawmakers became more serious about environmental legislation. In 1969, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) was passed. The goal of this law was to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony.”
In practice, this law accomplished the following:
- Required federal agencies to produce environmental impact statements (EISs) for all projects that might harm natural resources
- Led to the creation of the EPA
- Founded the first Council on Environmental Quality
- Indicated that the federal government was becoming more serious about environmental regulations
During this time period, several notable acts were passed, including the Clean Air Act.
The Signing of the Clean Water Act
The passing of NEPA and the Clean Air Act was significant to the Clean Water Act. These laws indicated that it was possible to pass stricter federal environmental regulations. Similarly, the EPA, which had just been founded, would ultimately play a key role in the enforcement of the Clean Water Act.
After a long political debate, the Clean Water Act was signed into law on October 18, 1972. This act, among others, initiated a new era of environmental protection regulations.
Contact an Environmental Justice Lawyer
The violation of clean water standards has caused harm to countless Americans. One example includes the residents of Flint, MI, who were exposed to harmful chemicals through their water supply. This jeopardized their health and has caused many harmful effects on the environment for many decades to come.
At Ben Crump Law, PLLC, we strive to support those who’ve experienced environmental injustice. Contact our firm for a free case evaluation today to see how we can help you get justice. If you or your loved ones have been impacted by contaminated water there is no need to delay legal action any further.