My Turn: Celebrating clean water

Posted: Sunday, October 20, 2002

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. Significant progress has been made, but much more needs to be done.

A fundamental principle of the act is the prohibition against treating "waste assimilation" as one of the legitimate "uses" of public waters, like drinking, recreation and fisheries protection. The act's interim goals make this clear: achieving "fishable-swimmable" status for waters wherever possible (a goal we were supposed to reach by 1983), and prohibiting the discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts. The act's ultimate goal is zero-discharge of pollutants, (which we were supposed to achieve by 1985).

Yet, unbeknownst to most people, waste assimilation is still routinely employed as a de facto use of our nation's waters. A federal regulation was passed in 1983 to provide states with the authority to adopt mixing-zone policies, i.e., to allow for the creation of pollution-dilution zones. As a result, tens of thousands of permits nationwide use dilution to circumvent state standards, legalizing pollutant levels in public waterbodies at otherwise illegal concentrations. Wastestream assimilation may be illegal, but wastestream dilution is still legal - roll over George Orwell.

In Alaska nearly every mining operation, municipal sewage plant, seafood processor, and oil-drilling platform dilutes its discharge with public waters before "meeting" pollution limits adopted to protect human health and aquatic life. Alaska's mixing zone regulation allows the use of dilution for any type of pollutant in virtually any waterbody. This discretionary power is supposedly limited by one overarching concept: beneficial uses may not be removed from the "waterbody as a whole."

Aye, there's the rub. How does one define the whole waterbody? Is it some portion of a stream near your home? Is it the river into which that stream flows? Is it a coastal bay or estuary, or the entire Pacific Ocean? Can 5 percent of the waterbody be sacrificed? Twenty-five percent? Seventy-five percent? Should impacts be defined by an organism's ability to survive today, tomorrow, or for the next 50 years?

Politicians routinely discharge rhetoric in support of sound science and open public process. Yet we rarely require documentation of the biota living in proposed mixing zone locations. We don't monitor many existing mixing zone areas to assess impacts. We allow mixing zones for chemicals that cause cancer and other diseases at phenomenally small doses, and we allow mixing zones for pollutants that bioaccumulate in the food chain and persist in the environment. We don't perform adequate risk analyses to ensure that people, wildlife, and aquatic life won't be harmed by the pollution in the mixing zone. We don't post mixing zone areas to tell people where they are and what is being released. Does this sound like sound science and informed consent?

It appears the state soon may be authorizing mixing zones for cruise ships that refuse to meet our health standards. We won't know where they're dumping, what they're dumping, how much they're dumping, how many of them are dumping in the same place, or what was living in the water when they dumped. Somehow it will be authorized in the name of sound science.

In the short term, mixing zones eliminate beneficial uses from miles of streams, rivers, lakes, and coastal waters by moving a polluter's point of compliance downstream from the point of discharge. In the long term, mixing zones are a huge disincentive to the development of better treatment options. Mixing zones save money for today's polluters, but increase the cleanup costs for tomorrow's taxpayers.

Anniversaries are a time for reflection. As we reflect on the Clean Water Act, one of the most important quality-of-life laws ever passed, we must recognize that a law is no better than its loopholes. For the act to ever meet its primary objective - "to restore and maintain the physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters", if we really want clean water, we need to close the mixing zone loophole. C-SAW filed a petition with EPA Friday signed by 80 state and national water quality organizations to start this process. As EPA's first Administrator William Ruckleshaus said during the Congressional debates on the act 30 years ago, "...we don't believe the solution to pollution is dilution."

Gershon Cohen, Ph.D., project director of the Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters (C-SAW), a project of the Earth Island Institute. Cohen is a 19-year resident of S.E. Alaska, and has served on numerous water quality advisory boards under the Knowles and Hickel administrations.

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