The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) was enacted in 1948, but it didn’t add much in the way of federal guidelines. Essentially, states, towns, and cities were offered some federal funding to address water pollution, but water pollution was a state’s problem and up to communities to solve on their own.
The FWPCA was updated in the 1950s and 1960s, now there was some control on a federal level, but only if the waterway passed through more than one state. It still required states to set their own standards. The changes were considered problematic as it was hard to determine exactly who was violating quality standards given the length of some waterways. Even if it was determined who was polluting a waterway, clean-up measures took longer than expected and control measures could be planned but not necessarily implemented.
Then, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969. There were so many chemicals and other pollutants in the water that it became obvious something needed to change. President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 and established the Environmental Protection Agency, which started a movement to clean up America’s waterways.
All of this brings us to 1972 when the federal government decided that government involvement was long overdue. That’s when the U.S. Clean Water Act was enacted, and it turns 50 this year.
The Clean Water Act Is Signed Into Law
The Clean Water Act of 1972 came up with new goals, and the biggest was that all industrial and municipal wastewater had to be treated before it was discharged. The federal government offered monetary assistance for the construction of municipal wastewater treatment plants, set strict enforcement policies on the federal level, and left day-to-day implementation of the new law to the states. This time, however, the EPA had a say in what happened, which put a lot more control in the government’s hands.
In October of 1972, one of the first changes hit when Congress enacted the Ocean Dumping Act. At that point, close to six dozen companies who had applied to dump their chemicals in the oceans were told no. That helped stop some of the pollutants from going into the ocean.
As the Clean Water Act also required industrial wastewater to be treated, industries had a deadline of July 1, 1977, in order to establish policies and develop industrial wastewater treatment systems. Municipal wastewater systems also had that deadline to establish secondary treatment systems, but they could apply for extensions and hope they’d be approved. Even with extensions, all wastewater districts had to meet the EPA’s “best practicable control technology” standards by July 1, 1988.
The best practicable control technology improvements were next. Industries were also given until March 31, 1989, to meet the “best available technology” for water treatment of toxic substances. Industrial settings that failed to meet this rule faced court-ordered actions.
Once the 1988 deadline hit, 86% of the nation’s municipal wastewater treatment plants had met the standards. The 14% that didn’t meet the deadline faced court-ordered schedules. Sadly, there are still towns and cities that struggle to meet the standards due to crumbling infrastructure.
Until 1988, sewage sludge and industrial waste were still being dumped in the oceans. It was banned completely with the Sewage-Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988. In 1992, New York City dumped its last load of sewage in the ocean finalizing the city’s agreement with the Ocean Dumping Ban Act.
The Safe Drinking Water Act Followed
At the end of 1974, another act was passed by the government. The Safe Drinking Water Act was signed on December 16th. It gave the EPA authority to regulate the quality of drinking water in public water systems.
Even as measures were taken to stop polluting the nation’s waterways, cancer-causing chemicals were discovered in New Orleans and Pittsburgh’s drinking water. Many other towns and cities were finding their public water smelled or tasted odd. To end this, drinking water standards were to be set by the end of 1977. In 1977, the act was upgraded and the changes were signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.
Public water systems had to make sure their water met these new standards, though extensions, such as budgetary constraints, would be granted in certain situations. Plus, districts that didn’t meet the EPA’s standards had to notify all customers immediately of the pollutants in the community’s drinking water.
Under President Reagan’s presidency, the Safe Water Drinking Act was updated again in 1986. More than 100 contaminants were added to the list of current contaminants. Industrial and municipal wastewater treatment plants had until 1991 to upgrade their wastewater treatment plants or systems to start cleaning wastewater of the new contaminants. Lead materials were also banned in water systems. Until then, lead solder could be used on water supply pipes.
When 400,000 people in Wisconsin were sickened by cryptosporidium, it led to 100 deaths. The EPA immediately launched regulations and testing for cryptosporidium with the Interim Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule.
The next amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act took place in 1996 under President Clinton. He signed the law to grant funding to municipal water treatment plants in need of upgrades to their system and to make sure they provide information to customers about any microbes or chemicals in their public drinking water supply.
In 1997, Canada and the U.S. teamed up to clean up the Great Lakes. The goal was to clean the lakes by 2006, as these lakes were providing more than 15 million people with water at the time the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was signed.
Hudson River was the next waterway to get cleanup. PCB contamination in the Hudson River was cleaned in 2002 by removing 2.65 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from a 40-mile stretch of the river.
The EPA Announced Government Contracts, Loans, and Grants Bans
To ensure industries and wastewater districts followed the new laws, the EPA announced a ban on any government contracts, loans, or grants in 1975. If a company was in violation of the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act, it would not be awarded a government grant, loan, or contract. Essentially, anyone caught polluting would lose out on essential government funding options and future contracts.
Use of PCBs and Other Chemicals Are Banned
One area of concern in 1979 became the use of synthetic chemicals known as PCBs. They were commonly used in paints, cement, and many commercial and household products. PCBs were found in water, soil, and in the air. As they were believed to cause certain cancers, their use needed to be phased out.
In 1983, the EPA ordered an immediate stop to EDB’s use as a pesticide after it was found in the groundwater. As it is a carcinogen and mutagen, it was immediately banned.
President Reagan signed the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act in 1986. If toxic chemicals were going to be released into the air, soil, or water, communities had to be informed.
What’s the Future of the Clean Water Act?
Even with the Clean Water Act, there are still many issues. In 1983, sewage treatment plants, farms, and urban runoff brought the pollution levels in the Chesapeake Bay to unheard-of levels. Federal, state, and local teams worked together to begin the cleanup that’s still ongoing.
President Obama renewed efforts to clean and protect the Chesapeake Bay. To do so, he named the bay a national treasure with an executive order in 2009. In 2011, the EPA established the “Pollution Diet” limiting the maximum daily load for pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus from states with waterways that feed into the Chesapeake Bay. Pollution controls must be in place by 2025.
As research advances, more pollutants are found and pollution from the past starts leaching out of the soil or groundwater and raising issues today. That’s why the 50-year-old Clean Water Act continues to be updated and altered.
Does your plant need upgrades to meet the most recent EPA requirements? Are you struggling with efficiency and coming too close to maximum flow rates? It’s time to address the upgrades to your wastewater treatment plant or water treatment facility. Lakeside Equipment is an expert in treatment solutions and has been since the 1920s. Trust in our expertise to bring your facility up-to-date with technology and energy-efficient equipment.