The Clean Water Act Protects Us From Polluters. It’s Under Attack.

Published Oct 18, 2023

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Clean Water

Clean water faces threats on so many fronts. A destructive Supreme Court ruling on the Clean Water Act makes action more urgent than ever.

Clean water faces threats on so many fronts. A destructive Supreme Court ruling on the Clean Water Act makes action more urgent than ever.

The Clean Water Act, passed 51 years ago today, is one of our country’s bedrock environmental laws. By cracking down on pollution discharges into rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands, it has dramatically improved water quality in communities across the U.S. But it faces new threats that put our health, communities, and environment at risk. 

For years, polluting industries have fought to weaken the Clean Water Act. This past year, they got their wish.

In Sackett v. EPA, the extreme right-wing majority of the Supreme Court ruled to pull many of the nation’s wetlands from protection under the Clean Water Act. More recently, the decision forced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to adopt new rules to comply.

Sackett v. EPA is a clarion call for environmental advocates. It puts our nation’s waters, health, and environment in jeopardy, and it opens the way for even more deregulation.

Why We Need a Strong Clean Water Act

Up until the late 1900s, polluting industries could wreak havoc on our nation’s water with impunity. Some rivers became so choked with pollution that they caught fire. Corporations ruined drinking water sources for many communities. 

But in 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to restore and protect our waterways. The cornerstone of the Act is its permit system. Facilities that seek to discharge pollution into waterways must follow a permit that limits the amount of pollution they can release. 

The Clean Water Act also directs the EPA to revisit pollution standards every five years and lower them as pollution control technology improves, with the bold goal of ultimately eliminating discharges into the nation’s waters. 

The Clean Water Act has led to tremendous progress in cleaning up and protecting the nation’s waterways. But we still have a long way to go.

According to EPA data, half of our waterways are still “impaired” by pollution. This is partly because the EPA has failed again and again to tighten the permit standards for polluting industries.

So in May of this year, we joined allies to sue the EPA. Many of our country’s dirtiest industries, including oil refining and plastics, have not seen updates to their permit limits in 30 years or more. As a result, corporations are dumping billions of gallons of toxic chemicals into our water. 

We have also sued the EPA for failing to update its Clean Water Act regulations for factory farms. Factory farms release unconscionable amounts of dangerous pollution into our waterways, yet most remain unregulated. Where permits do exist, they are ineffective. EPA’s refusal to act is unlawful.

We can’t do this work without you. Support our EPA suit and all our work toward a livable future!

How Sackett v. EPA Weakened the Clean Water Act

This inadequate regulation has sickening impacts on communities living near polluting facilities and polluted waterways. The need for stronger protections for our nation’s water could not be clearer. But this year, the Clean Water Act took a big hit from the right-wing majority in the Supreme Court. 

The Clean Water Act has long protected the “Waters of the United States.” This includes not only lakes, rivers, and streams, but vital wetlands, too

Wetlands play many roles in a healthy environment. They provide essential habitats for plants and animals, and they protect cities and towns from floods. This is especially important as climate change makes flooding and storms more powerful. 

They also serve as natural pollution filters, as water in wetlands always travels to other water sources, like lakes and rivers. As a result, protecting wetlands is key to protecting all waterways in the United States. 

But this year, the Supreme Court cut off tens of millions of acres of wetlands from Clean Water Act rules. In Sackett v. EPA, the Court’s extreme majority ruled that many wetlands don’t count as “Waters of the United States.” Worse yet, its decision will also mean that many small streams and streams that flow for parts of the year will lose protection. 

With this ruling, the Court has contradicted decades of precedent and the crystal-clear aims of the Clean Water Act. You cannot protect and restore any of the nation’s waters without first protecting the wetlands and streams that feed them.

Sackett v. EPA’s Impact Reaches Far and Wide

Corporate interests have pushed for this outcome for years. Mining companies, the fossil fuel industry, real estate developers, and more have lobbied for weaker Clean Water Act protections to give them more freedom to pollute our precious and already damaged water resources. 

In Sackett v. EPA, the Supreme Court has sided with polluters over the Clean Water Act itself and the expertise of the agency directed to carry out the law. 

Sackett follows in the footsteps of another recent, extreme Supreme Court decision that targeted environmental regulation. In West Virginia v. EPA, the Court limited the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions — at a time of severely worsening climate emergency.

These two decisions make clear that an ideological Supreme Court — fueled by donations from right-wing billionaires — is determined to dismantle the federal government’s ability to protect our communities.

It’s part of a larger trend to strip agencies’ powers to protect our health and environment. Recently, many lawmakers have proposed drastically defunding the federal agencies meant to protect us, as well as limiting their powers.

We Must Do Everything We Can to Protect Our Water, Health, and Environment

Post-Sackett, we can expect to see polluting corporations and developers bulldozing and ruining wetlands with impunity. Water quality and flooding will get worse. As a result, communities around the country — especially those already vulnerable — will suffer.

We cannot let a radical court have the final say on our environment. Congress can and must revise the Clean Water Act to restore protections for wetlands and streams. And until it does, states can and must protect their waterways from polluters. 

On the Clean Water Act’s anniversary, we are reminded just how important it is to protect our water, health, and environment. In the wake of Sackett and the hamstringing of federal agencies, Congress and state officials must act quickly. We need to take full advantage of all the tools that remain.

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