Why we need the Clean Water Rule

By John Rumpler
Senior Attorney

Why do we need federal protection under the Clean Water Act if there are also state laws designed to protect our rivers and streams? The answer is that, all too often, state officials fail to enforce their own laws or side with politically-powerful polluters.

In November, we had a clear reminder of this pattern in North Carolina. Tar Heel state officials issued a permit allowing Martin Marietta to dump 12 million gallons of mining waste per day into Blounts Creek. The creek flows into the Pamlico River, which is known for fishing and camping.

In response, two groups asked an administrative law judge to review the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) permitting decision. The judge ruled that the groups didn’t have a proper legal basis to challenge the permit.

Without the federal Clean Water Act, that would be the end of the story. But NC DEQ implements its permitting program under the Act, and so it is required to adhere to its standards — including those governing the rights of citizens to challenge pollution permits. If those standards aren’t followed, EPA can strip the state’s “delegated” authority to implement the law and start enforcing it directly.

Last week, EPA’s regional administrator warned North Carolina that the state’s failure to allow citizens groups to challenge pollution permits could lead EPA to intervene and enforce the Clean Water Act directly. State officials were quick to label the whole episode a “misunderstanding,” but EPA sure has their attention now.

And needless to say, North Carolina is not alone. Groups in Wisconsin are urging EPA to intervene because of that state’s systemic enforcement problems, and we’ve seen similar petitions in Illinois and Virginia, among others.

Powerful polluters almost always prefer to deal with state officials, who often lack the resources or political will to confront them. The Clean Water Act provides a federal backstop to make sure polluters can be held accountable. And that’s why defending the Clean Water Rule – which restores the Act’s protections to half the nation’s streams and 20 million acres of wetlands — is so important.

Dec. 11 is the deadline for Congress to pass appropriations bills, and the threat looms large of anti-environment, dirty-water riders being attached to these must-pass spending bills. The Clean Water Rule faces it’s toughest congressional challenge next month, please contact your senators and representatives and tell them to “just say no” to anti-environment riders.