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Industry, states, feds often violate Clean Water Act

Gannett News Service

Gannett New Service

WASHINGTON – Nearly 30 percent of the nation’s biggest industrial, municipal and federal facilities have been in serious violation of the Clean Water Act in recent years, dumping almost 270 million pounds of toxic pollution into waterways in 1997 alone, a report released yesterday says.

Arizona was No. 43, with 290,258 toxic releases in 1997.

The report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a non-profit environmental and consumer advocacy organization, blames the Environmental Protection Agency for not doing enough to enforce the law against polluters. EPA spokesmen had no immediate reaction.

”The government is letting polluters continue to use our waterways as dumping grounds for toxic chemicals,” said Jeremiah Baumann, who co-wrote the report, titled ”Poisoning Our Water: How the Government Permits Pollution.”

”Despite the clear intentions of the Clean Water Act to eliminate the pollution of our waters, polluters continue to brazenly violate the law,” Baumann said.

The Clean Water Act, passed by Congress in 1972, set the goal of making all waterways safe for fishing and swimming by 1983.

Today, about 40 percent of U.S. rivers, lakes and estuaries still are too polluted for fishing or swimming, according to recent congressional testimony by EPA officials.

The report’s findings include:

• States with the most toxic pollution in 1997 were Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Texas, Mississippi, Ohio, Florida and New Jersey.

• The bodies of water receiving the most toxic chemicals were the Mississippi River, the Connequenessing Creek in Pennsylvania, the Brazos River and the Houston Ship Channel in Texas and the Alafia River in Florida.

• The 10 states with the highest percentage of major facilities that were violating Clean Water Act restrictions were Utah, Florida, Rhode Island, Ohio, Alabama, Tennessee, Connecticut, Wyoming, Nebraska and Indiana.

Polluters included oil refineries, chemical companies, pulp and paper mills, drug companies, fertilizer makers, tanneries, and metal and steel-making plants, the report says. In many cases, the pollution was discharged into waterways through publicly owned sewer treatment systems.

The report is based on EPA data, specifically on the Toxics Release Inventory of 1997 and the Permit Compliance System database for 1997 and 1998, obtained by PIRG under the Freedom of Information Act.

EPA and state governments issue permits to public and private facilities under the Clean Water Act that limit the amount of pollutants they can discharge into the water. The law was designed to gradually toughen permit requirements so that eventually no toxic pollution would be released.

However, permit standards have not been tightened, and enforcement against polluters who violate permit restrictions has been weak, the report says.

”EPA has sanctioned a permitto-pollute system rather than a pollution elimination system,” the report says.

Baumann and co-author Richard Caplan advocate mandatory minimum penalties for polluters. Currently, penalties vary from state to state, with California and New Jersey having the toughest enforcement laws, Caplan said.

A bill by Rep. Frank Pallone, DN.J., would require all states to set mandatory minimum penalties for serious violations of the Clean Water Act.

”Mandatory minimum penalties will help ensure that polluters, not taxpayers, pay for the damage they create,” the report says. ”The worst polluters should know that there will be repercussions for breaking the law.”

MAP: U.S. waterways clogged with toxins

Source: U.S. Public Interest Research Group/Dave Mather, Gannett News Service

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