Rhode Island’s waterways among least toxic in U.S.; Clean Water Act loopholes could threaten progress

Media Contacts
Channing Jones

Environment Rhode Island

 Providence, Rhode Island— Rhode Island’s waterways are ranked second cleanest in the nation by total volume of discharged toxics, according to a new report released today by Environment Rhode Island Research & Policy Center and co-authored by the Frontier Group. Although the report, entitled “Wasting Our Waterways”, paints a grim picture for the nation overall — according to the study, 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals were discharged into 1,400 waterways across the country in 2010 — Rhode Island figures well, ranking second best only to Arizona with less than 1000 total pounds of toxic releases.

“Rhode Island’s waterways have come a long way since the passage of the Clean Water Act. We have a lot to be proud of,” said Channing Jones, associate with Environment Rhode Island. “However, our work is far from over — and to protect the progress we’ve made, we must restore vital protections that have been stripped from the Clean Water Act in recent years, for the benefit of Narragansett Bay and other waterways in Rhode Island and across the country.”

The Environment Rhode Island Research & Policy Center report details the dangerous levels of pollutants discharged into America’s waters, compiling toxic chemical releases reported to the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Toxics Release Inventory” for 2010, the most recent data available. “Wasting Our Waterways” summarizes discharges of cancer-causing chemicals, chemicals that persist in the environment, and chemicals with the potential to cause reproductive problems ranging from birth defects to reduced fertility. Among the toxic chemicals discharged by facilities are arsenic, mercury, and benzene. Exposure to these chemicals is linked to cancer, developmental disorders, and reproductive disorders.

“Luckily, there are common-sense steps that we can take to continue cutting toxic pollution,” added Jones.

The Clean Water Act, which passed in Congress 40 years ago, has played a significant role in cleaning up the Blackstone River, Narragansett Bay, and other waterways in recent decades. However, Supreme Court decisions under the Bush administration have removed Clean Water Act protections for many waterways, putting smaller streams and wetlands — which filter and feed Narragansett Bay, the Scituate Reservoir, and other essential bodies of water — at risk to unlimited pollution. “The Clean Water Act was created to protect all of America’s waters,” said Jones. “It needs to do that again, or we could jeopardize the tremendous progress we’ve made.”

In order to curb the threat of toxic pollution, Environment Rhode Island recommends the following:

  1. Protecting all waters: The Obama administration should finalize guidelines and conduct a rulemaking to clarify that Clean Water Act protections apply to all waterways – including the 752 miles of streams in Rhode Island and the drinking supply of 564,893 Rhode Islanders for which jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act has been called into question as a result of two polluter-friendly Supreme Court decisions in the last decade.
  2. Pollution prevention: Industrial facilities should reduce their toxic discharges to waterways by switching from hazardous chemicals to safer alternatives.   
  3. Tough permitting and enforcement: U.S. EPA and R.I. DEM should issue permits with tough, numeric limits for each type of toxic pollution discharged, ratchet down those limits over time, and enforce those limits with credible penalties.

“The bottom line is that, although we can celebrate that discharges of toxic pollutants to Rhode Island’s waters have decreased tremendously, we need to protect and advance this progress,” said Jones. “We are counting in large part on the federal government to act to further protect our health and our environment, such as by restoring the Clean Water Act in its 40th anniversary year.”