imagesmap of flint, mi

(1) The recently outed lead (Pb) contaminated water “find”/”event” in Michigan; the previously – and generally forgotten (2) Toledo Water crisis – An algal toxin in Lake Erie contaminated the drinking water used by Toledo and many of its suburbs in August, 2014. It prompted a “do not drink” advisory for parts of three days and fueled public discussions about what created the problem and how to prevent it from happening again – and (3) the West Virginia Elk River Spill – in which thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical used to process coal spilled upstream from a water treatment plant serving the state capital, Charleston, and surrounding areas. Around 300,000 West Virginia residents were left without potable water as officials scrambled to purge the chemical, known as MCHM(4-Methyl cyclo hexane -methnol) , from the water supply.

The Clean Water Act (CWA), 33 U.S.C. §1251 et seq. ,  establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the surface waters of the United States – not groundwater – and regulating quality standards for surface waters. The Act made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source, e.g., a pipe, a culvert or a ditch, into the navigable waters of the United States – for most purposes any river or stream is considered navigable – unless a National Pollution Discharge Elimination Permit (NPDES) permit was obtained by the discharger.  The permit sets limits on the chemicals and pollutants that may be discharged.

The basis of the CWA was enacted in 1948 and was called the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, but the Act was significantly reorganized and expanded in 1972. “Clean Water Act” became the Act’s common name with amendments in 1972, 1977 and 1987.  Under the CWA and its amendments, EPA has implemented pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry.  The 1987 amendments set limitation on the toxic substances that could be discharged and therefore impair water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters.

Since the Reagan administration both Congress and the Presidents have hammered on the deregulation drum and cut the funds for regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and that agency’s state equivalents.  At the same time mostly Republican governors and legislatures have also cut funding to state environmental agencies.  The governors have also appointed heads of environmental agencies who don’t and will not regulate.  A good example is Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.  It used to be a very strong enforcer and regulator.  But since the mid-1990s it has become a eunuch, hobbled by over-meddling by the governor’s office and the state’s legislature.  That is why  Flint’s residents are drinking lead (Pb).

Itzchak Kornfeld. 



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