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Pennsylvania’s History with Water Pollution Policy

This blog post serves as an historical sidebar to a larger exploration entitled, A Primer on Pennsylvania’s Water Crisis: Challenges Impacting Every Community. Click here to view the full blog post and be sure to read Part II by clicking here.

Pennsylvania’s first statewide policy for preventing water pollution was the Purity of Waters Act of 1905, which set the first limits on how much “sewage” could be placed into Pennsylvania’s waterways. Unfortunately, the law specifically exempted discharges from coal mines and tanneries, which were some of the largest water polluters in the state at the time and influential in state politics. In fact, the law was enacted only after an outbreak of typhoid fever.

As orange streams, black snow, and water pollution grew significantly, Pennsylvania enacted the Clean Streams Law of 1937, which expanded penalties on polluters and strengthened discharge limits. Unfortunately, the law did not require polluters to restore degraded waterways and it continued exempting discharges from coal mines until “practical means for the removal of the polluting properties shall become known.”

The Clean Streams Law was significantly amended in 1945 to include coal mine discharges under the regulations and penalties, as well as require industry to develop and implement a plan for reducing pollution discharges. The Sanitary Water Board and Department of Mines were charged with enforcing these rules, though that enforcement was modest at best.

Yet, the Clean Streams Law was not wholly effective at the time. The number of polluted stream miles continued to increase and the state was incapable of keeping up with the industrial activity overwhelming our waterways. The Commonwealth began taking steps to turn the corner on its water crisis by amending the Clean Streams Law again in 1965 to require industries to restore degraded waterways as well as prevent their pollution. Regulations around discharges and in particular, coal mining, were significantly strengthened. Additional amendments in 1970 provided the Sanitary Water Board full regulatory authority over industrial activities that impact water.

During the 1960’s, as more Americans became involved in environmental causes, Pennsylvania began investing in cleaning up water polluting sites, such as Project 70, which created the authority to issue bonds and utilize eminent domain to purchase open spaces for conservation reasons. This led to the creation of numerous state parks that protected not only land, but critical waterways as well. The Land and Water Conservation and Reclamation Act (Project 500) was enacted in 1968 to direct $200 million into abandoned mine reclamation, a lasting water pollution source after decades of mismanagement.

New federal environmental regulations, such as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 and the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972 (otherwise known as the Clean Water Act) took the innovative step of providing a federal backstop to push states to strengthen their environmental policies. This led to Pennsylvania strengthening rules on drinking water, provisions for Lake Erie, new standards for wetlands, and strengthened permits for industrial activity. 

The PA Department of Environmental Resources (DER) was also created in 1970 to provide additional capacity. And in 1971, Pennsylvania voters overwhelmingly supported the ratification of Article 1, Section 27 of the Pennsylvania Constitution that states that people “have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment” and the Commonwealth is a “trustee of these resources” and “shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

In 1999, Pennsylvania passed the first Growing Greener legislation, which invested $650 million into land conservation and water pollution restoration projects. A second Growing Greener was enacted in 2005. The EPA implemented federal pollution restrictions on the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River watershed, in 2010, which requires significant reductions in stormwater, agriculture, and industrial pollution. 

But since Growing Greener, Pennsylvania’s investment in water restoration has declined significantly and the states policy landscape has failed to keep up with emerging challenges, as Part 2 in this series will describe. Yet, while the future is uncertain, some progress continues. In 2017, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court reinforced the central importance of Article 1, Section 27 and found that the Commonwealth must explicitly follow its explicit principles to, among other environmental rights, provide pure water.

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