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The Clean Water Act’s 50-Year Impact on Pennsylvania

As we celebrate 50 years of the groundbreaking Clean Water Act, I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on what it means to PennFuture, Pennsylvanians, and our over 86,000 miles of streams. 

Pennsylvania has a long history of polluted waterways, due in major part to our economy’s historical reliance on extractive industries. In particular, coal mining’s toxic legacy remains the leading cause for the on-going impairment of the Commonwealth’s waters. More than 5,550 miles of streams are still impacted by acid mine drainage from abandoned coal mines. 

Extractive industries continue to damage Pennsylvania’s waterways. In particular, the fracking industry has recklessly polluted streams and groundwater across the state – through the fracking process itself or through construction of pipeline infrastructure

As far back as 1905, the Purity of Waters Act set limits on how much sewage could be added to the Commonwealth’s waters. And yet, even from the beginning, some of the largest water polluters - namely coal mines and tanneries - were specifically exempted from this law. As water pollution continued to worsen, Pennsylvania enacted the Clean Streams Law in 1937 to strengthen discharge limits and to increase coverage and penalties. And yet still, coal mines were exempted from this law. Nor did the Clean Streams Law require restoration of degraded waterways. In fact, it wasn’t until significant amendments in 1945 that the Clean Streams Law included discharges from coal mines and required the industry to develop and implement a plan for reducing these toxic discharges from fouling our waters. 

Unfortunately, despite these rules, enforcement remained lackluster. The number of polluted streams continued to increase as industrial activity overtook our waters. This led the Clean Streams Law to be amended again in 1965, significantly strengthening the regulation of water pollution discharges – specifically for coal mines – while requiring that polluters restore degraded waters and attempt to prevent their degradation in the first place. And yet our waterways still suffered. 

Eventually, the federal government recognized that states were ill equipped to prevent water pollution. Rather than rely on a patchwork quilt of water protection laws at the state level, on October 18, 1972, the Clean Water Act (officially the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972) was signed into law (over President Richard Nixon’s veto). 

This groundbreaking law set forth the goal to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters.” Focused on discharges of pollution from point sources into waters of the United States, the Clean Water Act (CWA) aimed to prevent, reduce, and eliminate water pollution through the development of water quality standards and limitations set forth in permits. Critically, the CWA imposes the concept of “antidegradation” into the regulatory scheme, meaning that once a waterway reaches a level of water quality, that level cannot be degraded. The federal backstop created by the CWA is especially important for states like Pennsylvania where some of our most ecologically sensitive and economically important streams and creeks are all too often polluted with no regard to the value – or “use” – of those waters. 

Although the CWA was hopeful that we would meet these laudable goals by 1985, we are still struggling to protect and restore our waters today. That is not to say that the CWA has not been successful; it most certainly has. We no longer have burning rivers and many of our rivers have seen a resurgence in aquatic life once struggling on the brink of extinction. People no longer turn their backs to the rivers and creeks that once provided so much recreational and economic opportunities for our communities. The CWA has significantly reduced raw sewage from being directly dumped into our waters. We have more “fishable and swimmable” waters than we did 50 years ago! 

But the problem is clearly bigger than anticipated, and with the CWA failing to regulate most non-point source discharges (e.g., stormwater runoff) and groundwater, there are regulatory holes that allow for water pollution and degradation to continue. (Good news: the Clean Streams Law covers groundwater!) With developers and industry continuing to challenge the applicability of the CWA (here's the latest example), the constantly uphill battle can often seem overwhelming for environmentalists and conservationists. 

Perhaps one of the most important components of the CWA is how the law allowed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for the Chesapeake Bay in 2010. Imposition of a TMDL (think of it as a “pollution diet”) was necessary to prevent pollution and clean up the Bay after decades of sediment and nutrient pollution took it to the brink. These pollutants are primarily from wastewater and non-point source runoff, resulting in murky waters and harmful algae blooms that threaten aquatic vegetation and organisms, while lowering the dissolved oxygen levels that are critical for the survival of aquatic life. 

In Pennsylvania, the Chesapeake Bay Watershed TMDL means that pollution inputs on the Susquehanna River – the main tributary to the Bay – must be significantly cut, improving water quality for Pennsylvanians as well as downstream communities. Recognizing this benefit to the water quality of one of Pennsylvania’s largest river systems, PennFuture has worked to support efforts to reduce pollution to the Susquehanna River. When agricultural interests initially challenged the Bay TMDL in federal court, PennFuture successfully intervened to support EPA. And yet, Pennsylvania is failing to meet these TMDL goals. And so we lobby in Harrisburg for funding for pollution reduction programs and press for robust water quality protections in permits and agency programs. 

Today, PennFuture continues to wrestle with protecting and restoring the Commonwealth’s waters, and we are grateful that the CWA is there along the way, supporting our efforts. CWA has allowed for Pennsylvania to enact stronger state laws that protect water quality, protecting those state laws from legislative rollbacks. Our attorneys rely on the CWA in defending our waters and enforcing against polluters. And when the jurisdiction of the CWA has been threatened over the years, Pennsylvania has stepped up in calling for robust protections at the federal level. 

Pennsylvania is lucky to have both tens of thousands of miles of streams and robust water protection laws. However, without enactment of the CWA 50 years ago, our history of allowing industries to pollute those waters could have undermined the overall health of the Commonwealth’s waters. PennFuture celebrates the enactment of the Clean Water Act and will continue to fight to protect our waters under it.

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