The Clean Water Act and the uncertainties of America’s water protection system

Photo By Nicole Chang

By Sophie Jin, Emily Evangelakos, Vincent Zhai, Dylan Woods

1972 Clean Water Act ensured pollutant regulation and cleaning of waterways including the Boston Harbor By Nicole Chang

In April of this year, Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), a New England environmental advocacy group, sued the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA), accusing the latter of inaction on industrial pollution that violated federal and state water regulations. Specifically, MWRA “took no enforcement action in response to at least 70 instances of noncompliance by significant industrial users,” according to Law Street, a database that digitizes judicial and legislative briefings.

The plaintiff said the defendant had transgressed the limits prescribed by the Clean Water Act of 1972, polluting one of the cleanest water resources on the east coast and endangering millions of Massachusetts residents’ access to drinking water.

Only a panoramic view of history can amply demonstrate the prevalence of the inbuilt tensions between humans and nature. From Noah and the flood in biblical lores to Medieval seamen traversing the uncharted waters, the notion of “man versus nature” seemed ingrained in people’s collective consciousness. 

In the United States, only at the turn of the 20th century did presidents and policymakers finally realize the perils of exploiting natural resources. The history of water pollution policy dates back to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, which was the first major U.S. law that addressed concerns and protection for water pollution. 

The Clean Water Act of 1972, which CLF cited in their complaint at length, came along after. The act dates back to Richard Nixon’s presidency and turned the legislative focus to the environment, especially water resources and vulnerability. Still extant in the U.S. Code, the law stipulates that industrial companies have to obtain a permit before discharging pollutants into water streams, adding that the Environmental Protection Agency has a final say on who can obtain this permit, as well as when and how often.

Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a public health professor at Boston University, ascribed improved water conditions to the Clean Water Act.

“Rivers and ports in Greater Boston benefited from Clean Water Act regulations, Heiger-Bernays said. “[The] Charles River and the Boston Harbor were filled with industrial chemicals and unregulated sewage output in the 1970s, and their water quality gradually improved.”

She added that the EPA regulates the waterways and she is concerned the Supreme Court will continue to rule in favor of the EPA, which can be detrimental in the result of pollutants in the waters. 

James Lawford Anderson, Director of Undergraduate Studies and an Earth & Environment professor at Boston University, also discussed the history of Boston’s polluted water.

He stated that prior to the Clean Water Act, the Harbor and the Charles River had been highly polluted for almost two centuries, but the Clean Water Act did much to mitigate the exigencies of water pollution in areas like Boston and Quincy.

“Our Boston harbor was highly polluted since the 1800s and the Charles River, for

example, flowed with colors from textile mills, and raw sewage was released in it and to all of

the nation’s rivers,” Anderson said. “By 1992, the sewage treatment plant at Deer Island went into operation treating wastewater from all of Boston and half of Massachusetts. Using bacteria, the plant breaks down pollutants to safe levels and raw sewage discharge no longer occurs in our state’s rivers and the Boston Harbor.”

The Clean Water Action, a non-profit organization dedicated to solving “water quality and quantity problems,” is now celebrating the Clean Water Act’s 50-year anniversary, an effort that Heiger-Bernays saw as instrumental in complementing shortcomings in EPA’s blanket water regulations.

Thea Louis, National Water Projects coordinator at the Clean Water Action, called environmental justice an “essential step toward holistic water justice” and said her company strives to correlate water conservation with progressive steps toward racial equities, ensuring that marginalized communities can benefit from clean water, “with locally pronounced concerns taking center stage.”

Americans should stress the importance of safeguarding their water systems, in the wake of industrial waste coming from companies nationwide, as lower-quality water impacts everyone regardless of “human-determined social categories of difference such as race or income level,” she said.

Louis noted Clean Water Action’s past research into water equity concerns arising from EPA’s regulations, as well as initiatives to different levels of government to alleviate overlooked issues such as forever chemicals.

“Regulating water does not mean shutting down the business. In fact, clean water and healthy environments allow business[es] to thrive. Advocates and communities help make government work and it is important to remain engaged,” she said.

The Clean Water Act officially announced its 50th anniversary on Oct. 18. It took decades of both challenge and effort to realize that there needs to be a change and have Congress pass the act. Fortunately, the nation was able to bring back clean waters to everyone’s system and has made waters significantly cleaner and more reliable.  

Despite past achievements through the Clean Water Act, the federal government still cautions citizens and companies against rolling back decades-long progress through the unscrupulous, unregulated release of pollutants. With pollution, climate change, and other environmental issues, the government adds that valuing water is vital for the earth and for everyone’s future. 

It is important for everyone, including the residents of the greater Boston area, to continue to do what they can to keep the Harbor, and the environment, potable and clean.

“Just get out and vote for proper leadership of our towns, our states, and our country,” Anderson said. “Solutions for dirty water and dirty air are out there and they work. Yes, these solutions are expensive but they are worth it. So is your quality of life and how long we all live.”

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