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The Planet

October 1997, Volume 4, number 8

Enforcing Water Laws

by David Edeli and Jenny Coyle

Despite passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, one-third of our rivers and half of our lakes are still unfit for swimming or fishing. Over the years we've curbed the amount of industrial pollution that can be dumped into waterways thanks to victories in Congress and in the courtroom. But our water quality is still threatened by new sources of agricultural waste, toxic air pollution and a reluctance on the part of state and federal officials to fully implement the 25-year-old law. Club members are working at the grassroots level to monitor the enforcement of the act and push for progress to clean up industrial, agricultural and municipal wastes.

Hog Mega-Farms: A Mega-Mess

Corporate farms housing thousands of hogs pose a new threat to water quality in the Midwest and South as the pork industry makes efforts to expand into opening markets in east Asia.

"Hogs excrete from two to five times the amount that a human excretes, so a hog farm with a population of 100,000 creates at least as much fecal matter as a city of 250,000 people," said Ken Midkiff, program director for the Ozark Chapter in Missouri, a state with 14 mega-farms.

Hog farm runoff contains phosphorus and other contaminants that cause algae blooms and rob fish and aquatic life of oxygen. "Accidental" dumping is another problem, Midkiff said. In Missouri, there were recently more fish killed in one month from hog mega-farm pollution than were killed by agricultural runoff over the past 10 years. In 1995, thousands of fish were killed when 25 million gallons of liquid hog manure spilled in North Carolina's New River. A federal judge recently fined Smithfield Foods of Virginia $12.6 million for violating the Clean Water Act when it dumped hog waste into a tributary of Chesapeake Bay. But agencies -- overwhelmed by the increase in these farms -- aren't keeping ahead of the problem. To counter bad legislation, the Ozark Chapter works with family farm groups to raise awareness about the threats corporate farms present to surface- and groundwater, and to smaller operations. There are letter-writing campaigns, a yearly rally in the rotunda of the state Capitol, and Midkiff and chapter members help landowners adjacent to developing factory farms prepare for public hearings. "We need to build on this new coalition and stay ahead of the game as government wrestles with this relatively new issue," said Midkiff.

Don't Eat the Fish

It's hard to miss a major spill of liquid hog manure, but some forms of pollution are not as obvious. The Great Lakes once swallowed untreated industrial waste and sewage until one of them, Lake Erie, was pronounced dead. Today the direct discharge of such waste is illegal, but the lakes are still threatened by air pollution that rains from above, toxic sediment that releases poisons from below, and more direct agricultural runoff. Pollution levels in Lake Michigan fish have dropped 90 percent in the past 10 years, but they're still 150 times too high for human consumption.

"Sierra Club members in the Great Lakes area want residents to demand the enforcement of clean water laws, but first the seriousness of the pollution must be made clear," said Brett Hulsey, the Club's Midwest regional representative. In July, the Club's Midwest office released "Something's Fishy," a report based on the results of a poll conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service. The report states that one in three of the 5 million Great Lakes fishing families are not aware of the health risk from eating polluted fish.

"Agencies need to either educate the public about the risk of eating polluted fish, or close these waters to fishing," said Cathy Rose, conservation chair of the Milwaukee Chapter. "Pregnant women are especially at risk from contaminated fish."

This fall, the chapter will post warning signs for anglers because Wisconsin officials claim the state does not have the funds to do so. The signs, already erected by the Fox Valley Group in Wisconsin's John Muir Chapter, proclaim: "Protect Your Kids: Release Your Catch."

Strong-Arming States

The Clean Water Act requires states to identify rivers and streams that do not meet water quality standards and to establish the amount of each pollutant that can be safely allowed into each waterway. Clearly, zero pollution is the goal, but achieving pollution reductions is a necessary first step. That's why states are required to determine a limit, or total maximum daily load. But most states have not spent the staff time or money to follow the law. So, in 24 states across the country, lawsuits have been filed to force compliance. The Sierra Club is involved in such lawsuits in Minnesota, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kansas, Delaware and California.

In August, the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund attorneys representing the Club and four other environmental groups scored a victory when they successfully forced the EPA to enforce the law in Georgia. The Club's lawyers convinced a federal judge that the state ignored its legal responsibilities when it missed a 1979 deadline by 13 years and proposed a timetable for enforcement that could take up to 100 years to implement. "These were laughable timetables. Our settlement sets a more responsible pace," said the Club's coordinating attorney, Alex Levinson. He added that lawsuits in other states should also lead to more reasonable timelines. "Georgia's will be seen as the keystone case that set it all in motion."

Thanks to the Clean Water Act, dead lakes and burning rivers are remnants of the past. Twenty-five years of grassroots activism and powerful legislation have not solved all of our nation's water pollution problems, but it has set commendable goals. Different constituencies -- anglers, educators, farmers, environmentalists -- need to work together to educate the public and hold industry and irresponsible governments accountable for polluting waterways and poisoning fish.

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