Environment News Service (ENS)
ENS logo

Factories, Cities Across USA Exceed Water Pollution Limits

By Sunny Lewis

WASHINGTON, DC, March 24, 2006 (ENS) - More than 62 percent of industrial and municipal facilities across the country discharged more pollution into U.S. waterways than their Clean Water Act permits allowed between July 2003 and December 2004, finds a report on compliance with the law released Thursday.

"Troubled Waters: An analysis of Clean Water Act compliance," released by by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), shows that the 10 states with the most exceedances of Clean Water Act permit limits during this time period are Ohio, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Tennessee, Indiana, West Virginia, Massachusetts, and Illinois.

The states that allowed at least 100 exceedances of at least 500 percent are Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, Tennessee, Texas, and Massachusetts.


The Houston Ship Channel in the vicinity of Houston Fuel Oil (Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)
"Polluters are using America’s waters as their dumping ground. Instead of solving the problem, the Bush administration has repeatedly shortchanged the EPA’s budget and is undermining essential clean water programs," said Clean Water Advocate Christy Leavitt of U.S. PIRG, the national lobby office for the state Public Interest Research Groups. State PIRGs are nonprofit public interest advocacy organizations.

U.S. PIRG called on the Bush administration to back off its efforts to weaken the Clean Water Act by withdrawing its 2003 policy directive that eliminates Clean Water Act protections for many small streams, wetlands and other waters around the country, and to commit to strengthening enforcement of the Clean Water Act.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, U.S. PIRG obtained data on major facilities’ compliance with their National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits between July 1, 2003 and December 31, 2004. U.S. PIRG researchers found that polluters repeatedly exceeded their permit limits, often by egregious amounts.

The average facility discharged pollution in excess of its permit limit by more than 275 percent, or almost four times the legal limit.

Nationally, 436 major facilities exceeded their Clean Water Act permits for at least half of the monthly reporting periods between July 1, 2003 and December 31, 2004. Thirty-five facilities exceeded their Clean Water Act permits during every reporting period.

The 10 states with the highest percentages of major facilities exceeding their Clean Water Act permit limits at least once are West Virginia, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Iowa, Ohio, New Hampshire, Utah, the District of Columbia, and Maine.


A filter placed in a Norwalk, Connecticut storm drain by the Long Island Soundkeeper reduces E coli and coliform bacteria by 75 percent in waters flowing to the Sound from the test drainage area of 275 storm drains. (Photo courtesy Long Island Soundkeeper)
The 3,700 major facilities exceeding their permit limits reported more than 29,000 exceedances of their Clean Water Act permit limits. This means that many facilities exceeded their permits more than once and for more than one pollutant.

The eight counties with the most facilities exceeding their Clean Water Act permits at least once in this 18 month period include three in Connecticut, the most in any one state - New Haven County, Hartford County, and Fairfield County. The other five counties with large numbers of facilities exceeding their permit limits are:

  • Harris County, Texas, where the city of Houston is located
  • Worcester County, Massachusetts, in the Boston area
  • Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, in the Pittsburgh area
  • Calcasieu Parish, in southwestern Louisiana
  • Erie County, New York, where the city of Buffalo is located
Since it was passed in 1972, the Clean Water Act has "made significant strides in cleaning up U.S. waterways," says U.S. PIRG. But the group points out that the law’s goals of eliminating the discharge of pollutants into waterways by 1985 and making all U.S. waters safe for fishing, swimming, among other uses, by 1983 have not been met.

Today, more than 40 percent of U.S. waterways are unsafe for swimming and fishing activities.

"All Americans deserve clean water to drink and safe places to swim and fish. To clean up our waterways, this continuing pollution must stop," said Leavitt.

"In addition," she said, "the Bush Administration and Congress should fully fund the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to help communities upgrade their clean water systems."


Florida's Alafia River State Park is a favorite recreation spot. (Photo by Thomas E. Mulvaney courtesy Florida Division of Recreation and Parks)
Leavitt noted that the findings of the compliance report are likely conservative, since the data that U.S. PIRG analyzed includes only "major" facilities and does not include pollution discharged into waters by the hundreds of thousands of minor facilities across the country.

Facilities in California, Oregon and Washington were not included in the report as a result of unreliable data.

In order to achieve the goals of the Clean Water Act, U.S. PIRG recommends that federal and state officials:

  • Increase EPA Funding to put more environmental cops on the beat to identify and punish polluters violating their Clean Water Act permits, and to fully fund the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to help communities upgrade their sewer systems.

  • Protect all U.S. waters by withdrawing the Bush administration’s 2003 "No Protection" policy which excludes many small streams and wetlands from protection under the Clean Water Act, and supporting passage of the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act.

  • Strengthen the Clean Water Act by preventing polluters from profiting from pollution, tightening permitted pollution limits, revoking the permits of repeat violators, and ensuring citizens full access to the courts.
"To protect public health and the environment, the Bush administration and state officials must hold polluters accountable to their Clean Water Act pollution limits," said Leavitt.

U.S. PIRG applauded four Congressmen - Republicans Sherman Boehlert of New York and James Leach of Iowa, and Democrats John Dingell of Michigan and Jim Oberstar of Minnesota - as well as Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, for spearheading the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act. This legislation ensures that all U.S. waters are protected by the Clean Water Act.


U.S. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a state with thousands of lakes. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Feingold said, "I introduced S. 912, the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act, to address the Supreme Court decision in the case of Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. Army Corps of Engineers. In effect, the Court's decision removed most of the Clean Water Act protections for 30 percent to 60 percent of the nation's wetlands."

"The decision also shifts more of the economic burden for regulating wetlands to state and local governments. Wisconsin has passed a bill to assume the regulation of isolated waters, but many other states have not," Feingold said.

S. 912 would do three things. First, it would define 'waters of the United States' based on a longstanding definition of waters in the Corps of Engineers' regulations, Feingold explained. "Second, it would clarify that Congress's primary concern in passing the Clean Water Act was to protect the nation's waters from pollution, rather than just sustain the navigability of waterways."

"Finally," the senator said, "it would explain the basis for Congress to assert its constitutional authority over waters and wetlands. This section also makes it clear that protecting our waters is critical to public interests, including hunting and fishing."

  Let's Keep the Upper Lillooet River Wild! Three-time EUEC Keynote Speaker Gina McCarthy Confirmed to Head the EPA Aquaponics Revolutionizes Local Food Growing by Recycling 90% Water