When I was six years old, my dad took me to one of his favorite childhood fishing spots, a trout stream not far from our upstate New York home. When we arrived, however, we didn’t find waters rich with trout, but the stream running bright red – like a river of blood. The river had become a dumping ground for local tanneries, and that day it flowed with red dye. It’s still one of the most disturbing images I’ve ever seen, and it greatly influenced my decision to become an environmental advocate.
Unchecked Pollution and a River on Fire Galvanize the Nation
Before 1972, the scene I witnessed – and worse – was an all-too-common one across America (Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it famously caught on fire in 1969). Companies strong-armed states, cities, and towns into turning a blind eye to their toxic pollution with threats to relocate and lay off workers. This “race to the bottom” led to our lakes, rivers, and streams becoming ever unhealthier and more foul.
But then, the extraordinary happened. People across the nation came together, and overwhelming bipartisan support emerged for a strong law to protect our waters. The federal Clean Water Act was passed, setting minimum national water quality standards. Republicans and Democrats worked together to create the Environmental Protection Agency and start the arduous process of bringing back the nation’s waterways.
Hard-fought Progress at Risk under Current Administration
I have sued many polluters for violating the Clean Water Act, so I know as well as anyone that it is an imperfect but still effective law. I’ve also seen progress in making our nation’s waters cleaner and safer begin to slow in recent years.
But now we are faced with a federal administration that wants not only to halt decades of hard-fought progress but reverse them altogether. Industries like industrial agriculture, oil and gas, and commercial real estate interests are lobbying to prevent further clean up of our water and open up fresh opportunities to dump their pollution to enhance their bottom line. And they now have found a perfect ally in Scott Pruitt at the EPA.
Now is Not the Time to Pull Back
While there will never be a good time to unleash industrial polluters, deregulating them now would leave us all vulnerable to hazards both seen and unseen. When a toxic, blue-green algae outbreak spreads across Lake Champlain, causing odors, dead fish, and illness – it’s clear that something’s wrong. But if a toxic contaminant like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, a chemical added to many everyday household products like Teflon) leaks into your drinking water, you might never know it until you or someone in your family gets sick.
The Trump administration not only wants to ignore such visible threats as blue-green algae outbreaks, but it also wants us to turn a blind eye to the dangers, like PFOAs, that we cannot see. That’s because such dangers require a higher level of vigilance to monitor and a higher standard for industry to follow – concerns that apparently outweigh the higher and potentially deadly costs of inaction to human health.
Carrying on Our Fight for Clean Water Here at Home
For all the successes that have been achieved since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, our clean water battles are far from over. The stream near my childhood home no longer runs red, but today, the impacts on our public health from blue-green algae outbreaks and chemical pollution are as serious and urgent as ever. We cannot and will not stop fighting for clean water as a fundamental right for all Americans. And fighting for people and communities is what CLF does best.
At the national level, the Scott Pruitt pollution machine is already hard at work to weaken our bedrock water protections. We are working with our allies in the environmental movement to resist the efforts to gut the EPA’s. budget and its law enforcement efforts.
Meanwhile, CLF is also taking action here in New England to address the severe water pollution problems we all still face. We’re holding polluters accountable in court. We’re raising alarm bells about the dangers of toxic, blue-green algae outbreaks, which have become ubiquitous across New England (and the country) due to unchecked stormwater and agricultural pollution. We’re bringing the hidden costs of emerging toxins into the light. And we’re making sure that some of our country’s biggest polluters – ExxonMobil and Shell Oil – fortify their vulnerable oil terminals against the known impacts of climate change.
We are confident that Americans will rally once again to support clean and healthy waters. Will you join our fight?