Promises of 1972 law are unmet Environment: If the 25-year-old Clean Water Act has not met all its goals, it may be because they were not modest ones.

On the Bay

October 10, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IT TURNS 25 this month, a most impressive offspring of the modern environmental age, yet nowhere near fulfilling its promise.

Congress in 1972 passed the federal Clean Water Act over howls and threats from the industrial establishment, amid warnings from New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller that it was a "$3 trillion mistake."

Congress passed it again, handily, over President Richard Nixon's veto, and waited for the Supreme Court to strike down his impoundment of $18 billion in the act to help states treat sewage.

"Far and away the most significant and promising piece of environmental legislation ever enacted," said Republican Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee -- and it wasn't hyperbole.

The act was, and is, nothing less than a comprehensive and visionary approach to reversing centuries of abuse of the nation's waters.

It set the first nationally enforceable standards for sewer pipes and industrial discharges, with money to back them up. It also provided for judicial review, public participation and monitoring of polluters' cleanup performance.

It lent sorely needed muscle to the fledgling Environmental Protection Agency and established what is still the basis for protecting the nation's wetlands.

If it has not met all its goals, it is partly because it did not set modest ones: "zero discharge of pollutants" by 1985 and the "restoration and maintenance of biological integrity" of all waterways.

A second reason is the act's single most glaring inadequacy: the regulation of polluted rainwater flowing from urban, suburban and agricultural land.

A third reason has been a lack of public outrage that abetted overwhelming congressional passage of the Clean Water Act 25 years ago.

Today, we seem too accepting of statements such as this from the EPA, when it evaluated water quality progress in 1994: "On the whole, we have managed to hold the line or prevent further degradation."

Recently, to understand where we have come from and where we need to go, I spoke with Leon Billings at his political consulting firm in Washington.

Billings, 59, is a Democratic Montgomery County delegate to Maryland's General Assembly. He was a longtime top aide to Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine and, together, they essentially crafted the Clean Water Act.

Muskie, Billings thinks, had envisioned the need for clean-water laws as far back as the 1950s (he entered the Senate in 1959).

"He was, of course, a great outdoorsman. But as governor of Maine, he had always worked tirelessly for economic development, for jobs, and there was a story he always told about how a major industry had decided not to locate on the Saco River there.

"The problem was the river was dead. It had no more capacity to assimilate another industrial discharge. Maine lost industry to pollution, and Muskie never forgot that," Billings recalled.

During the 1960s, as head of a then-obscure Subcommittee on Pollution, Billings said, Muskie would travel around the country, holding open hearings on water problems.

"We'd go in and these hearings would last 10 to 12 hours, and Muskie would sit there through it all. He did this for three years, and he developed a background that made him almost unassailable when it actually came to crafting legislation years later," says Billings.

During 1971, reconciling a tough Senate Clean Water Act with a polluter-friendly House version took an epic 45 full days of meetings among members of Congress.

"The only reason we got agreement [on a tough version]," Billings said, "is that Muskie essentially said he was willing to adjourn without any bill and tell his constituents, 'The House doesn't want to clean up our waters.'

"If there's a frailty I've observed among today's legislators, it's their need to get some kind of bill at any cost," Billings said.

Muskie and his supporters were by then strengthened by growing public outrage over a dying Lake Erie and rivers such as Cleveland's Cuyahoga that had literally caught fire in 1969. The first Earth Day in April 1970 had begun the modern environmental movement.

It is striking, however, that long before the public got involved, a few farsighted politicians such as Muskie had conceived the need for a far-reaching strategy to clean the waters.

Today, it seems accepted that government's role is to respond to what the public wants. But when Edmund Muskie was sitting through all those hearings during the mid-'60s, there was no such articulated public demand.

Our political vision is narrower today. Billings says he thinks the legislative response to a river burning today would be "a bill to stop rivers from burning -- not a reasoned, comprehensive approach to the larger, underlying problems."

In Maryland, he says, he hopes any attempts to address the Chesapeake Bay's outbreak of Pfiesteria, with its possible links to polluted farm runoff, will be comprehensive, and not narrowly drawn responses.

Which brings us back to where the Clean Water Act needs to head -- nationally and for the sake of the Chesapeake Bay.

"The public believes most environmental policies are settled issues," Billings said. "They think progress is being made. The perception is we won, the polluters lost."

Indeed, the Clean Water Act has dramatically reduced the impact of municipal sewage and of industries, even as it has failed to cope with polluted runoff from the land.

It is not surprising, therefore, that agriculture has become the leading source of water pollution in the United States. Half of our impaired lakes, 60 percent of our degraded rivers and thousands of square miles of polluted near-coastal waters are linked to farm runoff.

This offers some context for approaching the Chesapeake's Pfiesteria problems. It ought to set a lot of the agenda for the Clean Water Act's next 25 years.

It ought to concern all who farm, as well as all who partake of farming's cheap and abundant production of food.

Pub Date: 10/10/97

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