The Clean Water Act requires the government to devise cleanup plans for polluted waterways. But putting those plans into effect? There is no requirement that farmers follow what’s outlined in them. And state officials say they must tread gingerly when they try to rein in agricultural pollution.
By Amelia Templeton, EarthFixMOLALLA, Ore. — Mark Schmidt remembers fishing as a kid for steelhead on the Molalla River.He also remembers how rain could ruin a day on the river.“If we could so much as hear the raindrops on the shingles in the night, we were aware that we would not be fishing in the morning,” Schmidt recalls.That rain sent dirt pouring from logging operations into the river. It made the water look like orange, wet cement. It often made the river unfishable for Schmidt – and downright unhealthy for the salmon and steelhead themselves.That was in the 1960s. Today, the federal Clean Water Act and state forest practices laws require landowners and loggers to follow standards, called Best Management Practices, to protect the quality of myriad streams and rivers that flow through forests.But some clean water advocates are calling for tighter regulation of one type of logging-caused pollution: muddy runoff from forest roads.The U.S. Supreme Court will rule in the coming year on the question of exactly how the Clean Water Act applies to the hundreds of thousands of miles of logging and forest roads.
By Bonnie Stewart, EarthFixSixty years of heavy traffic by logging trucks, along with trips by forest managers and recreation-seekers have taken a toll on roads that run through Northwest forests.Tens of thousands of miles of those roads are crumbling, sending sediment and other pollutants into rivers and streams. Fish don’t like that, and many people in the Northwest really don’t like it, which is how the federal Legacy Roads and Trails Program began a few years ago.A coalition of 18 groups formed the Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative. They lobbied Congress and, in 2008, pried loose about $8 million to start chipping away at the federal forest road maintenance backlog in Washington and Oregon. The federal dollars peaked in 2010, but have been cut by more than half even though the roads continue to deteriorate and pollute the region’s waters.The drop in federal funding is frustrating, said Tom Uniack of Washington Wild, one of the founding groups in the Washington Watershed Restoration Initiative. “What really is important is to keep some funding coming into the program, to continue that commitment.”The maintenance backlog for Washington and Oregon’s federal forest roads is big. To put the roads in “like new” condition would cost an estimated $1.1 billion, according to Rick Collins with the U.S. Forest Service, Region 6.
With Bonnie Stewart, EarthFixBeside Seattle’s notoriously polluted Duwamish River, an excavator scoops up small pieces of waste metal and slings them onto a rusty mountain at Seattle Iron & Metals Corp. A pile of flattened cars and trucks squats nearby amid vast sheets of scrap metal.For at least the last four years, this auto-shredder and metal recycler has dumped more pollutants into the river than allowed under the federal Clean Water Act, government records show. The levels have ranged higher than 250 times above what’s known to harm salmon that migrate through the river.The company, which declined to comment for this story, has reported its violations to the government, as required by law. But instead of punishing the metal recycler, the Washington Department of Ecology encouraged the company to reduce its pollution levels. The agency also searched for a legal way to make Seattle Iron & Metals’ pollution limits more lenient, and says it plans to relax them soon.The Seattle Iron & Metals story is emblematic of widespread failures in the nation’s efforts to end the toxic pollution that modern life has unleashed on America’s rivers, lakes and bays. The Clean Water Act, passed by a large bipartisan majority of Congress 40 years ago, was intended to eliminate water pollution by 1985. Congress declared: “It is the national policy that the discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts be prohibited.”Yet in the Pacific Northwest, as across the nation, the Clean Water Act has fallen far short of its goals. A majority of Northwest waterways fail to meet federally approved water-quality standards. An investigation by EarthFix and InvestigateWest reveals:Whole categories of polluters are effectively exempt from penalties when they dump pollutants illegally. This affects thousands of facilities.Violations of the Clean Water Act in the Northwest occur routinely, yet citations and financial penalties are relatively rare.Government bodies are among the most prolific violators, especially those that manage aging sewage-treatment plants and stormwater pipes that dump polluted rainwater runoff directly into waterways.The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is ultimately responsible for enforcing the Clean Water Act, has handed over that responsibility to 46 of the 50 states, including Washington and Oregon. In Idaho, the EPA handles that job.
Financial penalties for exceeding pollution limits under the Clean Water Act are relatively rare, we found in our investigation of enforcement in the Northwest.Nevertheless, some polluters do get fined. The interactive map above, based on records provided to InvestigateWest and EarthFix by Oregon and Washington’s environmental agencies and the EPA, which oversees enforcement in Idaho, shows the facilities fined since 2009.The color of each placemarker indicates the total amount of the penalty or penalties, with blue the lowest and yellow the highest. Click on a placemarker to see actual dollar amounts.
If you cruise around the internet doing research on the Clean Water Act – something I’ve been doing as part of the InvestigateWest-EarthFix-EcoTrope collaboration on the 40th anniversary of that landmark environmental legislation – it would be easy to think President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act into law. References to this are all over the place. Just one problem: It ain’t so. (And this bears on our current situation, too. More on that in a minute.)No, in fact, Nixon vetoed the legislation, saying that while he approved of its goal of cleaning up the nation’s badly polluted rivers, lakes and bays, the $24 billion pricetag was “staggering, budget-wrecking.” He continued:“I have nailed my colors to the mast on this issue. The political winds can blow where they may. I am prepared for the possibility that my action on this bill may be overridden.”
It’s remarkable to go back and take a look at what Congress had in mind when it passed the Clean Water Act, the subject of the just-launched collaboration between InvestigateWest, EarthFix and Ecotrope on the occasion of the 40th birthday of the bedrock environmental statute. We’ll just quote:“It is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985…“It is the national goal that the discharge of toxic pollutants in toxic amounts be prohibited… “It is the national policy that programs for the control of non-point sources of pollution be developed and implemented in an expeditious manner…”When Congress passed the Clean Water Act, it turns out, lawmakers really wanted to end water pollution over the course of the next 13 years. It sounds particularly ambitious from the perspective of 40 years later, given that we know that what really got set up was a system to permit pollution. How could that happen? Well, theoretically all polluters would be issued permits – a set of rules under which to operate – that would progressively reduce the amount of gunk going into the waterways they dumped waste into. It didn’t always work out that way, though. But there’s no arguing that the Clean Water Act in some ways did a great job of reducing water pollution. Nationally, the classic before-and-after story is Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, which had so many flammable wastes in it in the late 1960s that it famously caught on fire (more than once, actually. And it was far from the only industrial river to do so.) Today it’s a prized urban amenity, with restaurants along its banks and kayakers breezing along on their way to Lake Erie.Similar comeback stories can be told in our region about Oregon’s Willamette, Idaho’s Boise and the Spokane and Duwamish rivers of Washington, among others. Once they were essentially open-air industrial sewers. For example, a tributary of the Boise where a meat-packing plant was located once ran red with bloody wastes and “health regulators also noted a great deal of rat activity along the banks,” as Aaron Kunz reported last year for EarthFix, based on a government report from the time.