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The Planet

October 1997, Volume 4, number 8

Clean Water Timeline


Americans come face-to-face with the grim condition of the nation's waterways when the industrial-waste-laden Cuyahoga River in Cleveland catches on fire. That same year, waste from food processing plants kills 26 million fish in Florida's Lake Thonotosassa.


Overriding President Nixon's veto, Congress enacts the Clean Water Act. Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) calls it "literally a life-or-death proposition for the nation."The act sets the goals of water that is "fishable and swimmable"by 1983 and zero discharge of pollutants by 1985, and prohibits the discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts.


The Safe Drinking Water Act is passed, requiring the EPA to establish national standards for contaminants in drinking water systems, underground injection wells and sole-source aquifers.


An alliance of the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and others successfully sues New York industrial polluter Phillips ECG, which dumped waste into the Seneca River. According to Samuel Sage, chair of the Sierra Club's water committee, the case "tested the muscles of citizens against polluters under the Clean Water Act." A Clean Water Act reauthorization bill draws the wrath of environmental groups and is dubbed the Dirty Water Act when lawmakers add last minute "pork"and weaken wetlands protection and industrial waste treatment provisions. Most of these provisions are dropped due to grassroots action. The highest environmental penalty to date -- $70,000 -- is imposed against Alcoa Aluminum in Messina, N.Y. as a result of a suit filed by the Sierra Club. Alcoa was polluting the St. Lawrence River.


House Speaker Tip O'Neill says he won't let a Clean Water Act reauthorization bill on the floor without the blessing of environmental groups. Larry Williams, a Club lobbyist and chair of the Clean Water Coalition, gets many a late-night phone call from the senator chairing the committee that is drafting the bill, asking for the Club's buy-in. President Reagan vetoes this bill after Congress adjourns for the year.


Amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act direct the EPA to publish a list of drinking water contaminants that require regulation.


The Clean Water Act is reintroduced. It becomes law after Congress overrides President Reagan's veto. A new provision establishes the National Estuary Program.

1995 to 1996

The House passes H.R. 961, again dubbed the Dirty Water Act, which in some cases eliminates standards for water quality, wetlands protection, sewage treatment and agricultural and urban runoff. The Club rolls up its sleeves, collecting 1.2 million signatures supporting the Environmental Bill of Rights and releasing "Danger on Tap,"a report that shows polluter contributions to friends in Congress who want to gut the Clean Water Act. Due in part to these efforts, the bill is stopped in the Senate.


According to the EPA, more than one-third of the country's rivers and half our lakes are still unfit for swimming or fishing. The Sierra Club successfully sues the EPA to enforce Clean Water Act regulations in Georgia. The state will have to identify polluted waters and establish their pollution-load capacity. Similar suits have been filed in other states. Smithfield Foods is assessed a penalty of $12.6 million -- the highest ever -- for violating the Clean Water Act by discharging phosphorous and other hog waste products into a tributary of Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.

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