New York Times series: Toxic waters

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The New York Times is running a series on the worsening problem of water pollution in the U.S. Here’s the link to the series. Here’s last Saturday’s installment (Charles Duhigg). From the article:

Almost four decades ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to force polluters to disclose the toxins they dump into waterways and to give regulators the power to fine or jail offenders. States have passed pollution statutes of their own. But in recent years, violations of the Clean Water Act have risen steadily across the nation, an extensive review of water pollution records by The New York Times found. In the last five years alone, chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other workplaces have violated water pollution laws more than half a million times. The violations range from failing to report emissions to dumping toxins at concentrations regulators say might contribute to cancer, birth defects and other illnesses. However, the vast majority of those polluters have escaped punishment. State officials have repeatedly ignored obvious illegal dumping, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which can prosecute polluters when states fail to act, has often declined to intervene…

Records analyzed by The Times indicate that the Clean Water Act has been violated more than 506,000 times since 2004, by more than 23,000 companies and other facilities, according to reports submitted by polluters themselves. Companies sometimes test what they are dumping only once a quarter, so the actual number of days when they broke the law is often far higher. And some companies illegally avoid reporting their emissions, say officials, so infractions go unrecorded. Environmental groups say the number of Clean Water Act violations has increased significantly in the last decade. Comprehensive data go back only five years but show that the number of facilities violating the Clean Water Act grew more than 16 percent from 2004 to 2007, the most recent year with complete data…

…the Times’s research shows that fewer than 3 percent of Clean Water Act violations resulted in fines or other significant punishments by state officials. And the E.P.A. has often declined to prosecute polluters or force states to strengthen their enforcement by threatening to withhold federal money or take away powers the agency has delegated to state officials…

Enforcement lapses were particularly bad under the administration of President George W. Bush, employees say. “For the last eight years, my hands have been tied,” said one E.P.A. official who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “We were told to take our clean water and clean air cases, put them in a box, and lock it shut. Everyone knew polluters were getting away with murder. But these polluters are some of the biggest campaign contributors in town, so no one really cared if they were dumping poisons into streams.” The E.P.A. administrators during the last eight years — Christine Todd Whitman, Michael O. Leavitt and Stephen L. Johnson — all declined to comment.

Here’s a look at the series from a Colorado perspective, from David O. Williams writing for Real Vail. From the article:

Thirty-nine states provided information requested by the New York Times as part of its series on Clean Water Act violations called “Toxic Waters: A series about the worsening pollution in American water and regulators’ response.” Colorado wasn’t one of them. Instead, here’s what Ann Hause of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reportedly told the Times when asked to provide information or verify the Times’s reporting on Colorado’s enforcement, or lack thereof, of the Clean Water Act: “We cannot verify the accuracy of this data because we cannot duplicate the ECHO query or survey used to generate this data. Also, the time period in question and the criteria used for specifying compliance are not stated. With respect to the remaining questions, as they are fairly resource-intensive, the Department is not able to provide answers within any predictable time frame.”

Colorado Ethics Watch, a nonprofit political watchdog group, found that response woefully inadequate and now plans to file its own Colorado Open Records Act request. “This is an unacceptable response. How can the Department not know whether or not it is enforcing the Clean Water Act? And more importantly, how are Coloradoans supposed to know whether the Department is adequately protecting them from environmental harms?” said Ethics Watch director Chantell Taylor. “Taxpayers deserve prompt, accurate information on such important matters of public safety and we intend to follow up with the Department to see if we can get just that.”

Meanwhile the Las Animas County Commissioners are worried about language in S. 787, the Clean Water Restoration Act, according to a report from Randy Woock writing for The Trinidad Times Independent. From the article:

The new language in the federal bill, proposed by U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, would amend the Clean Water Act of 1972 by replacing the words “navigable waters” in the bill with the term “waters of the United States.” That change in the bill would define the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) area of jurisdiction to include, according to the bill’s official congressional summary, “…all waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, the territorial seas, and all interstate and intrastate waters and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, streams, mud flats, sand flats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, lakes, natural ponds…to the fullest extent that these waters, or activities affecting them, are subject to the legislative power of Congress under the Constitution.” As recently reported by environmental group Clean Water Action, a March 2008 memorandum from the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance claimed that “hundreds” of Clean Water Act enforcement cases had recently been either dropped or made lower priorities due to concerns about whether various rivers, streams, wetlands or other waters were protected from pollution by the Clean Water Act. The agency memo claimed that between 2006 and 2007 the agency chose to not pursue the enforcement of more than 300 violations due to the jurisdictional uncertainties. Clean Water Action reported that in 2001 the Supreme Court held that non-navigable intrastate waters were not protected by the Clean Water Act because they could serve as habitat for migratory birds. Clean Water Action claimed that it, “…gave polluters an opening to ramp up a decades-long effort to pressure the EPA and the Corps of Engineers to weaken their rules…

The county’s board of commissioners has also voiced concern about the proposed changes in the Clean Water Restoration Act. “I understand that there are probably some things (needing regulating), but why would we want everyone under those rules?” Las Animas County Commissioner Gary Hill said. “There’s ranchers, cities…what are we going to do when every drop of water that falls is sooner or later contaminated with a little drop of oil? Who’s going to pay for that?” Hill added, “Worse than that, when you get into a ranch or farm and you’re not having the public paying for it (EPA violations), then it’s just individuals…I don’t want anybody in control of our water; there’s enough regulations already.” Hill also said that the coalition of state counties, Colorado Counties, Inc., had drafted a letter in opposition to the bill, though it was not available for examination at press time.

Fellow County Commissioner Jim Vigil also voiced concern about the level of control over local waters that the bill could give federal agencies. “From an agricultural concern, the way that bill is proposed…the feds would have control over stock ponds, irrigation ditches, dry arroyos that run once a year when it rains, and that just makes it onerous on ranchers, farmers and, in general, the western U.S.,” Vigil said. “The EPA or Army Corps of Engineers could come in every time you wanted to clean out a stock pond or build a new stock pond or put in a new watering system.”

More water pollution coverage here.

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