Environmentalists' Dirty Attack on Clean Water Act

January 01, 1996  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Environment

I sure wished I owned stock in bottled water companies when the environmentalists released their reports on the state of our water supply.

These reports, one from the Environmental Working Group and the other from the Natural Resources Defense Council, claim that 53 million Americans in the last two years have been exposed to potentially unsafe drinking water. They warn this will worsen if the Clean Water Amendments of 1995, introduced by Pennsylvania Republican Bud Shuster and passed by the House of Representatives in May, becomes the law of the land.

Both reports clearly intended to support the Clinton Administration’s attempt to torpedo the House legislation, which Clinton has dubbed the "Dirty Water Act."

But what’s really dirty is that the regulation of safe drinking water is not at issue here; that is covered under another law.

The Clean Water Amendments define wetlands and ensures payment for property owners whose land has been restricted by having been declared a wetland, both of which are anathema to environmentalists. It also concerns municipal and industrial discharges from factories, sewage treatment plants and the like into water used primarily for recreation purposes or not used by people at all. Its only relationship to drinking water is that it deals with run-off from farms and factories, which may work its way into the drinking water supply.

But the environmentalists know that wetlands and waterholes are not hot-buttons; health is. That’s why in his speech condemning the Shuster bill, Clinton mentioned wetlands not once. Instead, in a tactic he’s borrowed from Hillary, he repeatedly talked about the threat to the health of children.

But to the extent that the House bill deals with water that may be used for drinking, it actually provides billions more in federal funding for treatment by funding currently unfunded mandates.

In any case, how dangerous is our drinking water?

Environmentalists have a very peculiar view of the earth.

The environmental groups’ reports make it seem as if 53 million Americans are ever-perched on the edge of sickness and death, but what it usually means is that over a two-year period they had a single month drinking water violation. Of the major contaminants, coliform (or actually substances sometimes accompanying it) is considered the most worrisome. Of the ten largest drinking water systems, only New York has had any monthly coliform violations. It had one. The largest with more than one violation serves only 230,000 people.

The maximum number of violations for any drinking water system serving more than 3,300 people (that’s the Environmental Working Group cut-off) was four, which applied to two water systems serving a total of 35,000 people.

Further, of the 53 million people figure, over 16 million weren’t exposed to any specific contaminant but merely had water which was considered to have had substandard disinfection treatment. This means there may or may not be a problem. No one claims our drinking water is always safe for everybody, especially for persons suffering from AIDS and other forms of immune suppression. These are the people who make up most of the estimated 900 annual deaths in this country from water contamination. That’s why the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised them they may wish to take such precautions as boiling their water.

As usual, this actually concerns the left’s desire for centralized power. Environmentalists, led by turf-protecting EPA Administrator Carol Browner, tell us that transferring some control of waterway pollution from Washington to local and state agencies is monstrous — as if the people who actually drink, bathe in, and swim in the water can’t be trusted to want it as safe as possible.

But is the federal government really our safe-water savior? Last year, 400,000 Milwaukee residents became ill after drinking water contaminated with cryptosporidium from animal feces and some people already suffering other illnesses died. According to the environmentalists’ reports, this shows the need for greater federal involvement. But the EPA had never even bothered to propose a cryptosporidium standard until after the incident.

"The EPA centrally commands and controls all the resources and they blame the locals," says Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies Executive Director Diane Van De Hie. But that’s "like blaming the soldier on the front for mistakes of the general."

Indeed, one tremendous advantage turning power over to local agencies is that it can add flexibility to a program that is currently as flexible as a brick.

That’s why supporters of the bill include not only Van De Hie’s group but also the Association of State and Interstate Water Pollution Control Administrators, the National Governors Association, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, and the National Association of Counties.

The lack of local control under the current Clean Water Act can not only lead to less healthy water but to busted budgets as well. Under current EPA dictates San Diego will be forced to spend more than $3 billion to meet secondary treatment requirements, even though the California EPA — which usually prides itself on being stricter than the federal one — said it was okay for the city to simply extend its pipeline further out into the sea.

Such problems as exist in the Shuster bill, regarding either wetlands or water quality, could be addressed in the Senate if that body passes its own bill. In the meantime, don’t let the H20 terrorists scare you into making your summer lemonade with Perrier.