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Polluted river on fire
12.20.02
Science and Health:
Troubled Waters
More on This Story:
A Brief History of the Clean Water Act

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 — the modern Clean Water Act — established a national commitment to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters. The Clean Water Act has been instrumental in improving the health of rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. It has stopped billions of pounds of pollution from fouling the water, and dramatically increased the number of waterways that are safe from swimming and fishing.

In April 2004, Carl Pope of the Sierra Club told NOW's David Brancaccio, "For the first time since the Clean Water Act was passed and enacted under President Nixon, for the first time, EPA reported last year that America's waterways are getting dirtier." Read the EPA report on water quality. Below, see a timeline of how government policy has changed the health of America's waters over the years.

1968According to a survey conducted in 1968, pollution in the Chesapeake Bay caused $3 million annually in losses to the fishing industry.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Sport Fisheries measured DDT in 584 of 590 samples, with levels up to nine times the FDA limit.
1969In 1969, bacteria levels in the Hudson River were at 170 times the safe limit.
Also, record numbers of fish kills were reported in 1969 - over 41 million fish. This included the largest recorded fish kill ever - 26 million killed in Lake Thonotosassa, Florida, due to discharges from four food processing plants.
In June 1969, a floating oil slick on the Cuyahoga river, just southeast of Cleveland, Ohio, burst into flames, causing significant fire damage to two key railroad trestles. The exact cause of the fire was never determined, but investigations pointed to a "discharge of highly volatile petroleum derivatives with a sufficiently low flash point to be ignited by a chance occurrence" - such as a spark from a passing train.
1970In July 1970, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare's Bureau of Water Hygiene reported that 30 percent of drinking water samples had chemicals exceeding the recommended Public Health Service limits.
1971The FDA reported in February 1971 that 87 percent of swordfish samples had mercury at levels that were unfit for human consumption.
1972Passed in 1972, the Clean Water Act was a response to the nearly unchecked dumping of pollution into our waterways. At the time, two-thirds of the country's lakes, rivers and coastal waters had become unsafe for fishing or swimming. Untreated sewage was being dumped into open water. The goal of the Clean Water Act was to reduce pollution in all U.S. waters to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of our nation's waters." The law called for "zero discharge of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985, and fishable and swimmable waters by 1983."
2001In January 2001, the United States Supreme Court issued a 5-to-4 opinion - the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers - that denied Federal Clean Water Act protection for thousands of wetlands that serve as habitat for migratory birds. The Supreme Court ruled that Clean Water Act was being applied too broadly - "an impingement of states' power" and ruled that the law cannot be used to protect isolated wetlands.
Present day and beyondEven after 30 years of regulation, water pollution is still a big problem in the U.S. Today, 39% of the rivers, 45% of the lakes, and 51% of the estuaries monitored are contaminated. Find out how the landmark environmental legislation is being threatened as never before - under attack from courts, from regulators and from property owners. (Summary of Supreme Court arguments)

Sources: "The Clean Water Act: 30 Years of Success in Peril," prepared by the Democratic Staff of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, October 18, 2002; "Clean Water Act: Fast Facts" from Environmental Media Services; "Clean Water Act," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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