Clean Water Act: ‘Why rivers no longer burn’ — James Salzman

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Here’s an essay from James Salzman (writing for Slate) celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. Here’s an excerpt:

A river catches fire, so polluted that its waters have “no visible life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms.” This could describe the mythological River Styx from Hades. Residents of Cleveland, though, may recognize the government’s assessment of their own Cuyahoga River in 1969. While hard to imagine today, discharging raw sewage and pollution into our harbors and rivers has been common practice for most of the nation’s history, with devastating results. By the late 1960s, Lake Erie had become so polluted that Time magazine described it as dead. Bacteria levels in the Hudson River were 170 times above the safe limit.

I can attest to the state of the Charles River in Boston. While sailing in the 1970s, I capsized and had to be treated by a dermatologist for rashes caused by contact with the germ-laden waters. You can see the poor state of our waters for yourself in the iconic 1971 “Crying Indian” commercial.

In 1972, a landmark law reversed the course of this filthy tide. Today, four decades later, the Clean Water Act stands as one of the great success stories of environmental law. Supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, the act took a completely new approach to environmental protection. The law flatly stated there would be no discharge of pollutants from a point source (a pipe or ditch) into navigable waters without a permit. No more open sewers dumping crud into the local stream or bay. Permits would be issued by environmental officials and require the installation of the best available pollution-control technologies.

Click through and read the whole article. If you are an enemy of the EPA stop for a moment to reconsider. The agency has its place. If you are a polluter remember that the law you circumvent is there to prevent the continued loss of clean drinking water sources. If you are a conservationist take solace in the fact that the U.S. was once aligned politically behind protecting the environment. It may happen again.

More water pollution coverage here.

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