Our water, under attack

07-27-2011 // Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

This op-ed was originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Members of Congress are trying to gut the Clean Water Act; here's why we have to stop them

By Larry Schweiger

In 1969, our neighbors to the west in Cleveland were hit with some unwelcome media attention when oil and debris in the Cuyahoga River caught fire. In those days, the Cuyahoga River and many others in the country were devoid of fish and wildlife. Steel mills and other industries routinely dumped their waste in rivers. Raw sewage and toxic chemicals in our waters were all too common. Lake Erie was declared "dead."

The outcry over the Cuyahoga River fire sparked a landmark law, the 1972 Clean Water Act, and today we have that law to thank for cleaning up many of the nation's bodies of water.

I grew up fishing in the rivers and streams of Western Pennsylvania. I still relish sitting on the riverbank or floating down a stream hoping for a nibble or a jerk on the line. While our waters are cleaner today than they were when I was a young boy, many are still impaired. For example, Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River is listed as the most at-risk river in the nation by American Rivers.

So what is Congress doing? Promoting dirty waters. Going backwards, it seems. Instead of helping to finish the job of restoring the health of our rivers, lakes and streams, Congress is trying to gut the Clean Water Act.

The House recently passed H.R. 2018, which should be called the Dirty Water Act, a bill that takes aim at a key pillar of the Clean Water Act -- strong federal oversight that ensures states can't weaken protections and put their own and neighboring states' waters at risk. The legislation would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from taking action without agreement from states, even if there is compelling scientific evidence of harm to human health and the environment or damage to downstream states.

Another proposed bill in the House would cut funding to restore America's Great Lakes and other waters by more than 50 percent, and it includes riders to block the EPA from restoring the scope of the Clean Water Act to ensure that waterways are safe for swimming and recreation. Efforts to clean up Lake Erie, the Ohio River and the Chesapeake Bay, for example, would be undermined. Also at risk is the drinking water for 117 million Americans that the Clean Water Act protects.

The Senate will soon consider legislation that would largely excuse harmful pesticide application from Clean Water Act compliance. Eighty percent of pesticides or herbicides used in the United States, chemicals that cause contamination when they run off or are sprayed into our waters, are used by agriculture. What parent or grandparent would want their youngsters to play or catch fish in creeks saturated with pesticides and herbicides?

This steady stream of assaults is being conducted by well-coordinated, well-connected, big-industry lobbyists like mining interests, corporate agribusiness and power companies driven by the bottom line, not clean water. These attacks run counter to the wishes of most Americans, who expect our government to ensure healthy and safe water. Preventing drinking water pollution is at the top of Americans' environmental "wish list," according to polls.

Clean water is not a partisan issue, which is why the Clean Water Act enjoyed strong bipartisan support throughout its nearly 40-year history. The law is still vital in maintaining and restoring healthy water and watersheds that benefit people and wildlife. Clean Water Act protections have stopped billions of pounds of pollution from contaminating our waters and doubled the number of streams safe for fishing and swimming.

Pennsylvania's streams and rivers are an important part of our natural heritage. They define our sense of place and community -- a legacy worth fighting for.

Let's make sure Congress knows it can't take away our right to clean water, and that we don't take it lightly when America's bedrock water protections are weakened. Let your representatives in the House and Senate know you care.