Clean Water Act Violations Rarely Prosecuted

Published on September 16th, 2009 | by

In an extensive series on “toxic waters”, the New York Times has discovered that “more than 50 percent of regulated facilities violated the Clean Water Act (CWA), but enforcement actions against polluters were infrequent.” Hawaii has the greatest number of violators per 100 facilities; Nevada has the least.  Missouri is the state with the least number of enforcements for violations.

Photo by jchengCWA is not being enforced effectively to prevent water pollution
CWA is not being enforced effectively to prevent water pollution

Why isn’t the Clean Water Act enforced?  Missouri claims to work out violations “informally”, but can we really trust such a process?  Residents, like Jennifer Hall-Massey near Charleston, West Virginia know the consequences. The New York Times reports:

Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the bathwater — polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals — caused painful rashes. Many of his brother’s teeth were capped to replace enamel that was eaten away.

Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.

As a parent, I could not imagine explaining to my child that bathing is hazardous to their health.  Clean water is a fundamental right that many Americans take for granted, yet their water could be similarly unsafe without outright evidence of scabs and rotten teeth.

Coal companies are to blame in West Virginia for the toxic water, but the problem is nationwide, largely because enforcement of the CWA is lax.  Again, the New York Times explains:

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.

The New York Times has done extensive research into Clean Water Act violations using the Freedom of Information Act. In fact, the Times water pollution database is now “more comprehensive than those maintained by states or the E.P.A.”, and it is available online.  Searching my rural zip code, I found only one facility registered with the Clean Water Act, and there were no violations; however, it has never been inspected. In searching a nearby city of Arcata, CA (population 17,044), I found 15 registered facilities, 11 violations, and one fine of $104,000.

If we want companies to take the Clean Water Act seriously and ensure families have safe water, we need to inspect and enforce violations.  The US government is failing to prevent pollution and provide surface water quality protection that is the cornerstone of CWA, as the EPA calls it.  If only one out of 11 violations are enforced in a small community, why would facilities take CWA seriously?

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1 comment

  • It is sad that companies do not take the Clean Water Act seriously. A regular inspection as well as hazardous training to employees will hopefully make them aware of their actions.

    Stiff fines will surely get their attention, but awareness and consequences might be the solution.

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