Making Waves with the Clean Water Act

Posted on Oct 20, 2012

The Clean Water Act at 40 and how YOU can use it

Rarely does a day go by without Casco BAYKEEPER® Joe Payne being asked, “So, how is the Bay doing?”

“That’s a hard question to answer,” concedes Joe. “While we’ve seen many improvements—many of which we’ve catalyzed—new threats keep rearing up. Most recently, it’s nitrogen pollution and ocean acidification. How we deal with these will affect our whole coastal economy, from clean beaches to seafood harvesting.”

One thing that Joe is certain has made a difference is the Clean Water Act. Many of us have childhood memories of foul-smelling rivers slicing through our communities like open sewers. Our nation’s waterways were dumping grounds for toxic chemicals, sewage, oil, and trash until the Clean Water Act reclaimed our waters.

In 1972, the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Water Act to ensure fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters for all Americans. The Clean Water Act, authored by Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, is the primary federal law that protects our nation’s waters, including lakes, rivers, aquifers, and coastal areas.

October 18, 2012, is the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act. Casco Baykeeper Joe Payne says simply, “In our line of work, it’s the most important piece of legislation ever passed.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has delegated some of its regulatory authority to enforce the Clean Water Act to the states. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is responsible for issuing discharge permits with “best practicable” standards and time limits.

Because state agencies don’t have the resources to conduct regular water quality monitoring, community groups such as Friends of Casco Bay have become the watchdogs for clean water, from testing the water to reporting pollution to pressuring for changes.

That citizen stewardship role is the result of an audacious provision in the law that encourages individual citizens to sue law-breaking polluters and unresponsive bureaucrats.

The Clean Water Act gives “any citizen” the authority to enforce the law against polluters by commencing a civil action against anyone, including the federal or state government, who violates its requirements. Many times, environmental attorneys represent the interests of these citizens, who may be local residents directly impacted by pollution or who support advocacy groups like Friends of Casco Bay. This grassroots constituency provides the legal “standing” for Friends and other Waterkeeper Alliance organizations to act on their behalf to protect the environment.

How a citizen suit works

Before citizens may file a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, they have to send a 60-day notice of their intent to sue to a polluter, and they have to notify the DEP and the regional EPA. This gives the violators a “grace period” during which the polluter can stop polluting, or the EPA or DEP may step in, which may put an end to the need for further citizen enforcement. If a citizen suit goes all the way to court, the whole process may take years.

Joe says, “The Citizen Suit provision is an important part of the Clean Water Act. Still, where it’s feasible, if you can stop pollution by reasoning with somebody, that can be quicker, cheaper, and more productive than hauling them into court, because you may actually convert someone from being a polluter to becoming a protector of their water body.”

So what can you do if you see pollution happening around Casco Bay? The Casco Baykeeper cautions, “Just because you see a liquid pouring out of a pipe into the ocean doesn’t mean it is illegal. A business, residence, or community may have a discharge permit from the DEP, which sets limits on how, what, and how much wastewater may be released into the ocean.”

However, some discharges clearly are illegal. Document it, if you can do so safely, with photos, descriptions, and dates of pollution incidents. Anything that leaves an oily sheen, floatables, or blood in the water, should be reported to our hotline: 207-799-8574 or to keeper@cascobay. org. If there is oil on the water, call the Coast Guard at 207-741-5465. Other emergency numbers can be found at cascobay.org/report-pollution and on the DEP website: maine.gov/dep.

What has the Clean Water Act meant for Casco Bay?

“In the 1970’s, much of the sewage around Casco Bay went directly into the ocean untreated,” recalls Joe. “Because of the Clean Water Act, federal funds became available to communities to build sewage treatment plants.”

The Act also required states to create and implement cleanup plans for polluted waterways.

In addition to the Citizen Suit provision, the Act invites public comment in five other sections, such as before the state issues a discharge permit for an industrial site, a sewage treatment plant, or a stormwater outfall. Citizens may comment on any proposed changes to state water quality standards. Friends of Casco Bay regularly scrutinizes and weighs in on issues and proposed actions that threaten our clean water.

Thanks to the Clean Water Act, Casco Bay has earned special protection as one of 28 estuaries named as an “Estuary of National Significance.” This designation brings with it support from the EPA to help fund the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership and its regional partners, including Friends of Casco Bay, to work on actions that benefit both humans and marine inhabitants.

When did the environmental movement start? There are many claims to fame:

• September 27, 1962: Publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring raised the public’s consciousness about the widespread use of pesticides and other toxins

• June 22, 1969: The Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire (again), prompting Time Magazine to describe it as the river that “oozes rather than flows”

• April 22, 1970: The first Earth Day drew 20 million Americans to demonstrate for environmental reform

• December 2, 1970: The Environmental Protection Agency was created to “enforce environmental protection standards, conduct research, and provide assistance to others combating environmental pollution”

• October 18, 1972: The Clean Water Act was enacted, a date celebrated by Waterkeepers around the world