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Clean Water: A Hard Act to Follow?

Ahhh ... the Clean Water Act! It makes you want to dip your eco-friendly camping mug into a cool, mountain stream and drink deeply, doesn't it? After all, look at the improvement in Lake Erie since the Act was passed in 1972. And the Cuyahoga River stopped burning years ago.

Prior to the adoption of the Clean Water Act (CWA), public waters were considered a legitimate disposal site for industrial and municipal waste. In 1972, Congress overhauled the nation's water pollution law (the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948) to reign-in the rampant dumping of pollutants into our nation's rivers, lakes, streams and coastal waters.

There have been success stories in the past 25 years, no doubt about it. But is all well with our nation's waters? Unfortunately not.

While the CWA has helped slow down the rate of point-source pollution in many US waters, loopholes in the act continue to allow the "legal" discharge of toxic pollutants. ("Point -- source pollution" refers to discharges from a pipe, as compared to "non-point source" chemical pollution from agricultural runoff and urban stormwater drainage.)

It is the mission of the Campaign to Safeguard America's Waters (C-SAW) to close the major loophole in the point-source protection plan of the Clean Water Act -- mixing zones. Mixing zones are established areas where water quality standards may be exceeded as long as "acutely toxic conditions" are avoided. A mixing zone can range from a few feet in front of a discharge pipe to a water boundary several miles from the point of discharge. For far too long, the use of mixing zones has allowed polluters to dump toxic chemicals into public waters.

The first page of the Clean Water Act makes the point crystal clear: "[T]he objective of this Act is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters." Congress adopted a series of goals and prohibitions to achieve this objective:

* The discharge of pollutants into public waters was to be eliminated (the "zero-discharge" goal).

* All waters were to be made safe for recreation and the protection of aquatic life (the "fishable-swimmable" goal).

* The discharge of pollutants into waterways in toxic amounts was prohibited.

The CWA's guiding principle was that "dilution was no longer to be the solution to pollution." Unfortunately, that principle was doomed to fail. The EPA decided to allow states to continue the pre-Clean Water Act practice of routinely allowing excessive pollution limits within the mixing zones.

Mixing zones are areas of the public water supply used as authorized dilution zones. With the proper permits, dischargers can dump toxic levels of chemicals inside these mixing zones -- as long as they meet water-quality standards when measured at a set distance from their discharge pipes. The mixing zone is the volume of water adjacent to the discharge pipe that is permitted to exceed state and Federal water quality standards.

It's pretty simple: Mixing zones save polluters money by allowing them to avoid treating chemical wastes that frequently contain many of the most toxic chemical pollutants known. The chemical pollutants that have been dumped into mixing zones are now showing up at biologically active levels in living organisms worldwide. Organochlorines (such as dioxin) and many pesticides, herbicides and carcinogens (such as benzene and polyaromatic hydrocarbons) are being dumped into public waters used for fishing, recreation and for the renewal of our spiritual connection with the Earth.

When they are measured at all, pollutant concentrations are measured at the outer boundary of the mixing zone rather than at the pipe. Under this system, the discharge of dangerous pollutants into public waters is rendered legal. Because they are "legal," most people never know the contaminants are there. Mixing zones permit the creation of vast toxic regions in our waters that can be harmful both to people and aquatic life, thereby violating the goals and prohibitions of the Clean Water Act.

C-SAW's objective is to develop a research, education, advocacy and outreach campaign that will end the poisoning of our waters through the use of mixing zone exemptions. C-SAW is in the process of drafting educational materials that explain what mixing zones are, where and why they exist, and the impacts they are having on our aquatic resources and public health.

C-SAW is developing an anti-mixing zone advocacy program to help organizations fight both currently authorized and proposed mixing zones. The best water quality activists, scientists and lawyers from around the US are being brought together through C-SAW to establish this national campaign to bring the mixing-zone loophole to the attention of the national media, federal and state administrations, the judicial system and the public.

The EPA is aware that individual states now implement a wide range of mixing-zone policies. This recognition has prompted a federal rulemaking process to standardize state policies for approving mixing zones. C-SAW is actively engaged in this process, working to tighten mixing zone regulations, campaigning to ban the approval of new mixing zones, and calling for a phaseout of existing mixing zones for bioaccumulative and persistent chemicals.

C-SAW's position is clear: To implement the true intent of the Clean Water Act, mixing zone authorization must stop.

[] What You Can Do: For more information on mixing zones and how you can help keep our waters clean for future generations, contact C-SAW, Box 956, Haines, Alaska 99827, (907) 723-4121, fax: 766-2360.

Gershon Cohen ( is the Project Director of C-SAW.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Earth Island Institute
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Cohen, Gershon
Publication:Earth Island Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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