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Anniversary of Clean Water Act Offers New Opportunity to Undo Uncertainty

PHOTO: The EPA is taking comments on a proposed rule that would clarify which West Virginia waterways, like the New River viewed here from Hawk's Nest State Park in Fayette County, would receive protection under the Clean Water Act. Photo credit: Steve Shaluta Jr.
PHOTO: The EPA is taking comments on a proposed rule that would clarify which West Virginia waterways, like the New River viewed here from Hawk's Nest State Park in Fayette County, would receive protection under the Clean Water Act. Photo credit: Steve Shaluta Jr.
October 16, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Saturday marks the 42nd anniversary of the enactment of the Clean Water Act, and the federal government wants to hear from the public about the landmark law.

In recent years, court decisions have clouded the waters on where the key pollution law applies - especially when it comes to small mountain headwaters and lowland wetlands.

Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, says nearly 60 percent of West Virginia streams are small headwaters, so a new Waters of the U.S. proposal by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would help protect the state's drinking water.

"If pollution would affect those streams, they would end up in streams and rivers that supply drinking water," says Rossier. "So we better adequately protect our headwater streams."

Critics of the Clean Water Act argue it creates red tape for industry. But Rosser counters the long-standing, durable law brought about a revolution in the condition of American waterways. She says we still have water pollution worries, but before the law passed, there were rivers in the U.S. that actually caught fire. And she stresses research by scientists which suggests protecting smaller waters upstream will benefit those downstream.

"What they find is that there is a connection," she says. "Water flows downstream, no matter where is starts. What happens in those headwaters affects what happens down in our own backyard."

Some argue a good, clear rule would actually lower costs for businesses applying for permits. Emily Russell, policy and campaigns manager with the Healthy Rivers Initiative at the Virginia Conservation Network, says protecting smaller waterways would have a large cumulative impact on big waterways like the Chesapeake Bay. She says cleaning up the bay in this manner would have significant economic value.

"We're talking in the billions here," says Russell. "For every one dollar spent, we get four dollars back. Now if I could put my retirement into an investment fund with the odds that good, I certainly would. Since I can't, I can at least invest in the bay."

The EPA is taking comments on the proposed update to the Clean Water Act though early November.

The Clean Water Act went into effect Oct. 18, 1972.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV