We can’t turn back the clock on clean water

From the shores of Lake Erie to our iconic rivers like the Delaware, Susquehanna and Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers, Pennsylvania’s  streams, rivers, lakes and other waters are where we go to swim, fish, canoe, kayak or just enjoy the scenery. They also supply millions of Pennsylvanians with clean drinking water.

However, far too often we’re reminded of the bad old days, when polluters used so many of Pennsylvania’s and America’s waters as their own private sewers:

In 2015, mutant bass with enormous cancerous growths were discovered in the Susquehanna River. The numerous toxins flowing into river are believed to be the cause, leading the PA Fish & Boat Commission to call for the river to be listed as seriously impaired.

Constant nitrates and other runoff pollution caused a massive algae bloom in Lake Erie in 2017. This bloom resulted in a large dead zone and shut down the drinking water supply for half a million people in 2014. The 2017 algae bloom was only slightly smaller.

In January 2014, a 10,000-gallon chemical spill into West Virginia’s Elk River left 300,000 people without water. They couldn’t drink it, bathe in it, shower with it, cook with it, or even wash the dishes with it.

A month later, a Duke Energy pipeline collapsed, spreading more than 39,000 tons of coal ash along 70 miles of North Carolina’s Dan River.

Just six months later, in August 2014, a toxic algae bloom left 400,000 people in and around Toledo, Ohio, without drinking water. The algae contained cyanotoxin—a substance so potent that the military considered “weaponizing” it. Toledo faced problems again last year, when the algae bloom hit again.

We’ve worked hard to protect our waters and we’re doing all we can now to keep polluters from turning back the clock to the days when our rivers were so polluted that they caught on fire.

A growing threat for our waterways

Unfortunately, polluting industries have put our waters in even greater jeopardy. They’ve been pushing to weaken the U.S. Clean Water Act ever since it first passed nearly 50 years ago. After spending millions of dollars on lobbyists, lawyers, and glossy PR campaigns, they succeeded in carving out  loopholes in the law that left more than half of America’s streams, and 50,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams, open to pollution.

As a result of these loopholes, hundreds of polluters were able to escape penalties.

Fortunately, the EPA agreed to act, proposing a new rule that would close the loopholes so the agency could enforce the law,  stop the polluters, and protect our waterways.

"Legal warfare"

However, polluting industries lobbied furiously to stop us.

Our adversaries included big oil and gas companies, which have thousands of miles of pipelines running through wetlands. They threatened legal warfare against the plan to restore protections to these wetlands.

Coal companies, which have a history of dumping the wastes from their mining into mountain streams, and stood to benefit if the Clean Water Act failed to protect these streams.

Powerful developers who want to pave over wetlands without restrictions. A Michigan developer named Rapanos filed one of the court cases that created the loopholes.

Huge factory farms who generate millions of pounds of animal manure each year, some of which runs off into our water. These big agribusinesses and their congressional allies unleashed a smear campaign, designed to scare ordinary farmers into believing the EPA was out to grab their land and even “regulate puddles.” The smears were, of course, completely untrue.

Winning the biggest step forward for clean water in a decade

We quickly responded to support EPA’s efforts, to advocate in Congress for supporting this clean water initiative, recruit and mobilize a diverse and powerful coalition, and rally the grassroots to demand action.

  • Together with our allies, we gathered more than 800,000 comments and held more than half a million face-to-face conversations about the need to close loopholes in the Clean Water Act.

  • With the influential voices of more than 1,000 farmers, business owners and local elected officials behind us, our visibility events and media outreach efforts countered Big Ag’s smear campaign against the rule.

  • With the rule under threat, our national team held meetings with more than 50 congressional offices, urging them to champion the voice of the public and stand up for clean water.

And  our efforts paid off when President Obama finalized the Clean Water Rule in 2015, restoring federal protections to more than half the nation’s streams, which feed drinking water sources for one in three Americans.


EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (sitting, right) and U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Army (Civil Works) Jo Ellen Darcy (sitting, left) signed the Clean Water for America rule on May 27, 2015, with Margie Alt, Environment America executive director (second from left).

But the fight for clean water continues

Sadly, now the Trump administration has come in and at the behest of the polluters has called for eliminating this historic clean water protection. "

Clean water is a right, not a privilege. So we’re ramping up our efforts again to defend our existing clean water safeguards to restore and protect our rivers and streams, and working to ensure clean water for all.

Clean Water Updates

News Release | Environment America Research and Policy Center

New “Voices for Clean Water” website highlights wide array of Americans speaking out against pollution threats

In response to a growing set of pollution threats and to mark today’s 47th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, Environment America Research and Policy Center and the Clean Water for All coalition have launched  a new website -- “Voices for Clean Water” -- that  features photos and testimonials from a wide array of individuals from across America. They included business owners, faith leaders, public health experts and people who love to swim, hike, kayak or just drink clean water.

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Report | PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

Safe for Swimming?

The Clean Water Act, adopted in 1972 with overwhelming bi-partisan support, had the farsighted and righteous goal of making all our waterways safe for swimming. Yet 46 years later, all too often, Americans visiting their favorite beach are met by an advisory warning that the water is unsafe for swimming. Even worse, in recent years millions of Americans have been sickened by swimming in contaminated water.

> Keep Reading
News Release | PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

Beach Alert: Swimming in Pennsylvania’s polluted waters can make you sick

[Erie, PA] – With summer in full swing, Pennsylvania beachgoers should beware: It might not be safe to go in the water. Last year, 27 beaches across the state had water pollution levels that put swimmers at risk of getting sick on at least one occasion last year, according to a new report by the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. The study, Safe for Swimming?, looked at fecal bacteria levels at a total of 28 beaches across the state.

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News Release | PennEnvironment

Groups Announce Historic Coal Ash Cleanup Agreement with Power Plant Polluting Susquehanna River

Four environmental groups today announced an historic agreement to reduce toxic pollutants leaking from a power plant’s coal ash dumps into groundwater and the Susquehanna River, the largest Chesapeake Bay tributary.

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News Release | Environment America

House passes sweeping PFAS protections: 2025 ban on military use, Superfund cleanup and clean water safeguards

The U.S. House approved a host of provisions today to address widespread drinking water contamination from toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The annual defense spending bill would phase out the military’s use of PFAS-containing firefighting foams by 2025 — a major source of drinking water contamination. The bill would also designate all PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under Superfund and toxic pollutants under the Clean Water Act, spurring cleanup and reducing discharges into waterways, respectively.

Both chambers have now incorporated our request to rapidly phase out the military’s use of PFAS. This is what communities and service members deserve. The House wants this phaseout by 2025, while the Senate says 2023. We are gratified to see this Congressional race to the top.

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