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The Clean Water Act: 40 Years and Still a Work in Progress
This week marks the 4oth anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). This complex and far-reaching law was a milestone back in 1972 and remains a pillar of America’s environmental policy and commitment to future generations.
The CWA reflects a number of national policies, but one of the most fundamental is that we will no longer allow our waters to be treated as industrial waste dumps. By many measures, the act has been a profound success. Rivers no longer catch on fire and pipes spewing untreated waste directly into the nearest waterway are no longer common sights.
Unfortunately, one industry has refused to move with the times. Hardrock mining companies are regularly taking advantage of two loopholes in the CWA in order to store millions of tons of untreated waste in our wetlands, streams, and lakes–a practice that is tolerated only because most mines are developed in rural areas with limited economic alternatives or political clout.
The dumping of industrial mining waste threatens fish, wildlife, and community drinking water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the hardrock mining industry is the biggest source of toxic pollution in the country and is responsible for contaminating 40% of the headwaters in western watersheds.
While storing tailings in the nation’s waters is convenient for mining companies, it is not a necessary way of doing business. Almost 30 years ago, EPA found that mines could operate profitably without discharging their untreated wastes into waters. The agency adopted strict pollution standards which, if enforced today, would prohibit many of the mining industry’s most harmful practices.
Wouldn’t it be a wonderful 40th birthday present if EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers used their authority to close the two loopholes in the Clean Water Act that allow hardrock mines to ignore decades-old pollution standards and poison our waters?
Isn’t it time that the hardrock mining industry was required to play by the same CWA rules as everyone else?