According to a recently released report in the New York Times, as many as half of the nation's largest water polluters might be exempt from the Clean Water Act.
Signed into law in 1974, the measure was intended to protect water quality, the environment and public health by regulating major polluters. However, several Supreme Court decisions have never clarified which waterways are protected. The dispute concerns everyone from farm field to federal office building. Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, feel some of the decisions have reduced their ability to do what the law intends. Farm groups are concerned the government's legal arms may be too long.
The court rulings focused on the wording of the Clean Water Act that limited EPA's power to "the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters" of the U.S. According to a report in the New York Times, the vague language has allowed certain companies to avoid prosecution, which could be contributing to an increase in water pollution across the nation.
The EPA estimates that more than 1,500 major pollution investigations have come to a standstill in the last four years. It claims thousands of known polluters have contaminated waterways by spilling oil, carcinogens and dangerous bacteria. The EPA reports about 117 million Americans get their drinking water from sources fed by these vulnerable waterways.
Despite the various rulings by the high court, EPA officials still believe they have control over the nation's "significant" bodies of water -- even if they go dry for extended periods of time.
For the last two years, some members of Congress have tried to limit the impact of the court decisions by introducing legislation known as the Clean Water Restoration Act. The main purpose of the measure is to replace the term "navigable waters" with the term "waters of the United States."
The American Farm Bureau Federation, or AFBF, has maintained for several the Clean Water Restoration Act leaves no water unregulated in the United States. AFBF claims that even puddles of rainwater on private land would be subject to full federal regulation for the first time in the 36-year history of the act.
The Clean Water Restoration Act has been approved by a Senate committee but has yet to be introduced in the House.