Environmental advocates celebrate Clean Water Act’s 50th anniversary

Media Contacts
Taran Volckhausen

Former Communications Associate, The Public Interest Network

As the public celebrates the Clean Water Act’s 50-year anniversary on Tuesday, Environment America Research & Policy Center and U.S. PIRG Education Fund are re-releasing four resources that underscore the crucial need for the law’s pollution protections for America’s waterways.

“We have come a long way since Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972. But too many of America’s waterways and beaches are still contaminated with toxic pollution and sewage,” said John Rumpler, senior director of Environment America Research & Policy Center’s clean water program and a co-author of the reports. “We should be doing more to protect our rivers and streams, not sliding backward.” 

The four reports are:

  • Wasting Our Waterways details how polluters poured toxic substances, including chemicals linked to cancer and other serious health risks, into roughly one in every three local watersheds across the United States in 2020. 
  • Safe for Swimming? looks at fecal indicator bacteria sampling data from beaches across the United States. The data revealed that 328 beaches – more than one of every 10 beaches surveyed – were potentially unsafe on at least 25% of the days that sampling took place in 2020. 
  • Slaughterhouse Pollution fact sheet documents the huge volume of pollution flowing from meat and poultry processing plants – an industrial category for which the EPA has not updated pollution control standards since 2004.
  • Waterways Restored provides 15 coast-to-coast examples of the Clean Water Act playing a vital role in reducing pollution in rivers and bays.

“A half-century after the Clean Water Act took effect, it’s outrageous that our children aren’t guaranteed a toxic-free future,” said Matt Casale, director of U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s environment campaigns and a co-author of the Wasting Our Waterways report. “Polluters too often recklessly dispose of chemicals linked to cancer, developmental harm to children and reproductive damage. It’s time to stop this toxic dumping.”

Many of the reports’ key recommendations involve using tools of the Clean Water Act to address these pollution threats – including updates to pollution control standards, dramatically increased water infrastructure funding and protecting America’s remaining wetlands. 

Yet the outcome of a Supreme Court case heard earlier this month could set back efforts to protect waterways from pollution. In Sackett v. EPA, the plaintiffs’ industrial and ideological supporters are urging the Court to interpret the Clean Water Act so narrowly that half of America’s wetlands and streams would lose federal protection against polluters and developers.  

“To make all our waters safe for swimming and fishing is the sacred commitment our nation made with the Clean Water Act 50 years ago,” said Rumpler. “For all the days we have spent enjoying America’s waterways, let’s celebrate the 50 years of progress made by the Clean Water Act. Going forward, we must defend this bedrock environmental law and adopt stronger measures to ensure that America’s waterways are clean and safe for our children and generations to come.”