Jurisdictional Issues Place Us at Risk for Water Contamination
Continuing their coverage of drinking water pollution in the United States, the New York Times published the latest story in their Toxic Waters series, Rulings Restrict Clean Water Act. The Times reports that many of the nation’s largest polluters are escaping regulation because jurisdictional limitations prevent enforcement of the Clean Water Act. It remains uncertain which waterways are protected by the law. Charles Duhigg and Janet Roberts write:
The Clean Water Act was intended to end dangerous water pollution by regulating every major polluter. But today, regulators may be unable to prosecute as many as half of the nation’s largest known polluters because officials lack jurisdiction or because proving jurisdiction would be overwhelmingly difficult or time consuming, according to midlevel officials.
The court rulings causing these problems focused on language in the Clean Water Act that limited it to “the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters” of the United States. For decades, “navigable waters” was broadly interpreted by regulators to include many large wetlands and streams that connected to major rivers.
But the two decisions suggested that waterways that are entirely within one state, creeks that sometimes go dry, and lakes unconnected to larger water systems may not be “navigable waters” and are therefore not covered by the act — even though pollution from such waterways can make its way into sources of drinking water.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been placed in a disadvantageous position because of these court rulings. In many instances, the agency is restricted from doing its job – protecting the environment and protecting the public.