Clean Water Act

EPA to redouble Clean Water Act enforcement

You wouldn't guess it from a late-Friday Google News search, but in my book, this qualifies as big news: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency promised today to redouble its efforts to  enforce the Clean Water Act.

The EPA's announcement today comes in reaction to an excellent New York Times series that we've paid homage to before, and which documented how polluters have systematically violated the Clean Water Act for decades, often with little or no retribution.

What's really significant is that agency is promising to go after some of the most prolific sources of stormwater, including city streets and feedlots.  We've been harping on this topic for years now, and it's great to get the heft of the NYT into the picture. The paper reports EPA is likely to go after "mining companies, large livestock farms, municipal wastewater treatment plants and construction companies that operate sites where polluted stormwater has run into nearby lakes and rivers." About time.

Here's what EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had to say in the agency's press release:

Updating our efforts under the Clean Water Act will promote innovative solutions for 21st century water challenges, build stronger ties between EPA, state, and local actions, and provide the transparency the public rightfully expects.

It should be pointed out that reporters had documented parts of this story before the Times. Yours truly, along with Lisa Stiffler, Lise Olsen and others at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, did that in the Puget Sound region earlier this decade.

NYT, AP give us some in-depth reporting on water pollution

Wow. After toiling for years to expose the ills of water pollution, it's really exciting to see some of the nation's largest news organizations tackling some of the country's biggest water-contamination problems.

We've previously highlighted the New York Times' excellent piece on widespread industrial non-compliance with the Clean Water Act, which leads in some cases to polluted drinking water.

It's part of the NYT's "Toxic Waters" series. The latest installment devles into one of our favorite topics, stormwater, and particularly the nasty stuff generated at animal feedlots known as CAFOs.

Meanwhile, over at the Associated Press, some poor journalist whose byline was dropped when his story ran in the Charleston Daily Mail has done an admirable job looking into the quality of drinking water in the nation's schools. We helped in a sort of consultant role when the colleagues at the Seattle P-I took this topic on some years ago. We're glad the AP went after the national picture.

-- Robert McClure

NYT helps you track down water pollution in your town

It's true that the mainstream media has plenty to apologize for, having flubbed reporting on Iraq and the financial crisis and for its tortoise-like pace in moving into the modern age of interactive journalism. (For an interesting take on that last part, and more, see Dan Gillmor's worthwhile "Eleven Things I'd Do If I Ran A News Organization." No anniversary stories or top 10 lists, for starters.)

But this week brings a powerful reminder of what the MSM can do that isn't generally possible in other quarters -- and in this case, the MSM is explicitly trying to empower citizen journalists and fellow scribes to run further with the story.

I'm speaking, of course, about the powerful package that ran this week in The New York Times on lax enforcement of our country's water-pollution rules. It's the latest installment in a series called "Toxic Waters."

Charles Duhigg's story starts with a woman whose kids got scabs and rashes and had teeth enamel eaten away by polluted drinking water. She lives just 17 miles from the state Capitol in West Virginia:

Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.

“How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not clean water?” said Mrs. Hall-Massey, a senior accountant at one of the state’s largest banks.  “How is this still happening today?”

The Times wore out a lot of virtual shoe leather on this project, filing public-records requests with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and with all 50 states.

Spokane cracks down on detergents to save a river

The Spokane River is so badly polluted that it will take $500 million and a decade to get a handle on the pollution problem. That's the upshot of a new plan released by the Washington Department of Ecology.

 Nine years in the making, the plan envisions trading of pollution credits, much like the cap-and-trade legislation being considered in Congress to slow global warming. The public has until Oct. 15 to comment on the new plan. 

According to a story in the Spokane Spokesman-Review by Becky Kramer, enviros and government types are happy about the plan. The most memorable writing about the Spokane River's pollution problems in recent memory came from Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times:

By day, Patti Marcotte is a working mom -- dealing with the balancing act created by a 5-year-old daughter, a demanding job, a split-level house and a willful boxer puppy.

Come the post-dinner hour, however, Marcotte begins operating in the shadowy world of smuggled soap.

Local officials, you see, banned detergents containing phosphorus, the element that is leading to rapid growth of algae that ultimately robs the water of oxygen.

But most detergents still contain phosphorus. When residents of Spokane couldn't get their dishes clean enough using the reformulated soaps, they went across the state line to buy the good stuff. Good for them and their dishes, anyway -- but not so good for the Spokane River.

 -- Robert McClure

Seattle pledges more pollution control to help Puget Sound

The city of Seattle and King County will step up efforts to prevent raw sewage from flowing into Puget Sound and its tributaries, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today.

But the steps are small compared to those called for by environmentalists who want to see Puget Sound and the Duwamish River cleaned up. The current schedule gives Seattle until 2020 and King County until 2030 to almost completely end pollution from so-called "combined sewer overflows." (PDF)

These sometimes-smelly oopsies result from a piping system that mixes untreated sewage with rainwater runoff. Most of the time it's a good system because the rainwater -- aka stormwater, the largest remaining water pollution source in the country -- goes to a wastewater treatment plant.

But when a lot of rain hits overloaded systems like the one King County and Seattle operate, the whole mess comes shooting out into waterways. Sometimes the stuff backs up into streets or even basements.

Major pollution discharges into the Duwamish River are scheduled to continue for decades, despite today's order and despite what's supposed to be a  major EPA effort to clean up the Duwamish.

Such discharges happened 336 times in the Seattle-King County system in 2007, the most recent figures available.

A surprising number of these overflows happen during relatively dry periods after little or no rain.

Alaska mine gets a boost, Washington mine gets the boot

In what may be the final go-ahead for Alaska’s Kensington gold mine, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has given its blessing to the dumping of 4.5 million tons of mining waste into a lake  in the Tongass National Forest, not too far from Juneau, reports Kim Murphy at the L.A. Times.

The project has been under national scrutiny since 2007, when the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals first blocked the Army Corps' plans to approve waste disposal in the lake. In June 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the mining company’s decision to declare the waste “fill material" under a Bush-era policy that allows Coeur Alaska to dump the waste without meeting an earlier, more-stringent interpretation of the Clean Water Act. For more history on the legalities, check out our DatelineEarth post from July.

The decision to allow Lower Slate Lake to serve as a repository for toxic mine tailings was made despite the fact that the process will kill much of the current aquatic life. The verdict has troubled environmentalists, who fear that reinterpretations of environmental protection laws, such as the Clean Water Act, mean trouble for waterways elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Seattle Post Globe reported on Friday that Washington State’s Maury Island sand and gravel mine expansion would be put on hold. A federal judge ruled that the Army Corps had not thoroughly assessed how  construction of a dock to serve the mine would affect Puget Sound aquatic life, including one of the state’s four aquatic reserves.