Will Congress act on clean water?

September 28, 1994|By Dan Pontious

WHEN MEMBERS of Congress head home for the November elections, there may be more than health care reform left unfinished. Lack of attention to water pollution may leave public health begging as well.

This is the year when Congress is supposed to revise both the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. There is ample reason to toughen both laws. The federal Environmental Protection Agency says that more than a third of our nation's waterways are unsafe for fishing, swimming or other uses. EPA data also indicate that nearly 1-in-5 major industrial and government wastewater treatment facilities is in serious violation of the Clean Water Act.

In addition, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say nearly 1 million Americans get sick each year from drinking polluted tap water. More than 100 people died from just one outbreak of drinking-water contamination in Milwaukee last year.

Water pollution may lead to other problems as well. Recent scientific studies have linked exposure to certain toxic chemicals in the environment to rising rates of breast cancer and prostate cancer, as well as weakened immune systems, low-sperm counts and hormonal imbalances. To dramatize the point, on TC Earth Day 1994 EPA Administrator Carol Browner went fishing in the Anacostia River in Washington and caught a catfish with a mouth tumor.

So, in a year when there has been much gnashing of teeth over the health care system, has Congress taken action to protect our health from polluted water?

Not really. Even though Maryland has already lost about three quarters of its water-purifying wetlands, a Clean Water bill initially proposed in the House of Representatives would have released more wetlands for development. The bill is still in a House subcommittee. According to the latest EPA figures available, Maryland industries have increased the amount of toxins discharged into our waterways and sewers, but the bill would not have worked to prevent such pollution.

One might think that last year's drinking water disaster in Milwaukee -- and subsequent boil-water orders in New York and Washington -- might have spurred Congress to toughen the Safe Drinking Water Act. Yet in May the U.S. Senate passed a drinking water measure that would actually weaken current protections, allowing more cancer-causing chemicals and other pollutants into our drinking water.

How could that happen? There could be a few reasons. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that 86 percent of the U.S. Senate offices have bottled water, according to a Sierra Club survey. Many members of Congress voted to ease restrictions on the amount of toxins in tap water, but apparently they don't drink it themselves. Most of their offices purchase bottled water at taxpayers' expense.

Another factor is that water utilities would like to weaken the standards they must now uphold. One water utility executive tried to put the situation into bizarre perspective by saying, "We're not Rwanda. People are not getting sick in the streets." The analogy is clearly absurd, but this executive also apparently was ignoring Milwaukee's 1993 episode when over 400,000 people became ill from polluted tap water. One man was stricken from a cup of water he used to take an aspirin at the airport.

Finally, it is likely that Congress has been influenced by the polluters themselves. Since the Clean Water Act was last reauthorized in 1987, over 200 industry Political Action Committees or PACs have contributed $56 million to incumbent congressional members' campaigns. The industries behind such PACs want to recklessly roll back our water protections in order to boost their profit margins.

These PAC contributions contradict public opinion which, as one would expect, is firmly behind making sure our water is safe for drinking, fishing and swimming. A Times Mirror poll taken this past June showed that 76 percent of the public said our laws to curb water pollution have not gone far enough, while only 4 percent thought they had gone too far.

The House of Representatives could still act to strengthen the Safe Drinking Water Act this fall. Last week, a key House committee passed a bill which is a carefully negotiated improvement over current law.

If Congress can fight off the special interests, our lawmakers can pass a new act with tougher enforcement measures and health standards. Such a move would help protect the most vulnerable -- children, the elderly and the sick.

As with health care reform, however, the chances of protecting our waterways through a strengthened Clean Water Act grow slimmer by the day. Citizens who long for a time when they can be sure it is safe to fish and swim in local waterways may have to wait yet another year for any action by Congress.

Dan Pontious is executive director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG). Larry Bohlen is conservation chair of the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club.

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