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A Brief History of the Clean Water Act

In addition to untreated sewage being discharged directly to fresh water, the industrial revolution, while bringing many advances benefiting humanity, also dramatically increased water pollution. The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA) was first passed in 1948 to establish comprehensive programs for eliminating or reducing the pollution of interstate waters and tributaries and to improve the sanitary condition of surface and underground waters. The statute authorized the Federal Works Administrator to assist states, municipalities and interstate agencies in constructing treatment plants to prevent discharges of inadequately treated sewage and other wastes into interstate waters or tributaries.

The Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 was not the first time such an incident had occurred nor was it the most dramatic or expensive in terms of damage done. In fact, the river had caught fire numerous times dating as far back as 1868. The famous picture on the cover of Time Magazine (pictured above) of flames leaping up and completely engulfing a ship was actually from a far worse fire that occurred in 1952. The pollution in the Cuyahoga River was so significant that a 1968 Kent State University symposium described one section of the river as follows:

“From 1,000 feet below Lower Harvard Bridge to Newburgh and South Shore Railroad Bridge, the channel becomes wider and deeper and the level is controlled by Lake Erie. The surface is covered with the brown oily film observed upstream as far as the Southerly Plant effluent. In addition, large quantities of black heavy oil floating in slicks, sometimes several inches thick, are observed frequently. Debris and trash are commonly caught up in these slicks forming an unsightly floating mess. Anaerobic action is common as the dissolved oxygen is seldom above a fraction of a part per million. The discharge of cooling water increases the temperature by 10 to 15 °F. Animal life does not exist. Only the algae Oscillatoria grows along the piers above the water line. The color changes from gray-brown to rusty brown as the river proceeds downstream. Transparency is less than 0.5 feet in this reach. This entire reach is grossly polluted.”

Other national studies in the 1960s revealed high levels of toxins in drinking water, rivers unfit for swimming, contaminated shellfish, record numbers of fish kills, and huge economic losses for the fishing industry. Lake Erie was declared “dead” because water quality was so poor it could no longer sustain aquatic life. Thus, while the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire only lasted about two hours, it became the spark that ignited public demand for federal action to clean up the nations waterways.

In 1972 Congress completely overhauled the oft amended FWPCA and it became known as the Clean Water Act (CWA).

The revisions:

  • Established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States;

  • Gave EPA the authority to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry;

  • Maintained existing requirements to set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters;

  • Made it unlawful for any person to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained under its provisions;

  • Funded the construction of sewage treatment plants under the construction grants program; and

  • Recognized the need for planning to address the critical problems posed by non-point source pollution.

Subsequent amendments modified some of the earlier CWA provisions. For example, revisions in 1981 streamlined the municipal construction grants process, improving the capabilities of treatment plants built under the program. Changes in 1987 phased out the construction grants program, replacing it with the State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund, more commonly known as the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. This new funding strategy addressed water quality needs by building on EPA-state partnerships.

Over the years, many other laws have changed parts of the Clean Water Act. Title I of the Great Lakes Critical Programs Act of 1990, for example, put into place parts of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1978, signed by the U.S. and Canada, where the two nations agreed to reduce certain toxic pollutants in the Great Lakes. That law required the EPA to establish water quality criteria for the Great Lakes addressing 29 toxic pollutants with maximum levels that are safe for humans, wildlife, and aquatic life. It also required the EPA to help the States implement the criteria on a specific schedule.

In more recent years the EPA has been focused on the prevention, reduction and elimination of sanitary sewer overflows (SSO), which are the direct result of fats, oils and grease (FOG) blockages in wastewater collection systems. SSOs can contaminate waterways causing serious water quality problems, and/or back-ups into commercial buildings or residences causing property damage and threatening public health. The EPA estimates there are at least 23,000 - 75,000 SSOs per year (not including sewage backups into buildings) in the U.S.

While the Clean Water Act does not specifically proscribe fats, oils and grease, some jurisdictions have broadly applied the terms Grease and Oil, which are restricted pollutants, to commercial restaurant discharges. Jurisdictions may find more solid ground simply enforcing the Pretreatment Program regulations at 40 CFR 403.5(b)(3), which prohibits “solid or viscous pollutants in amounts which will cause obstruction” in the POTW and its collection system. There is no doubt that FOG blockages are the number one cause of sewer overflows, which are an ongoing clear and present danger to human health and safety.

Grease interceptors at the source is the only way to prevent, reduce or eliminate FOG discharges to collection systems and when properly sized, selected, installed, and maintained, provide the kind of protection our wastewater collection systems need in order to operate efficiently. That doesn't mean that collection systems don't require ongoing maintenance since it's impossible to prevent all fats, roots, oils and grease from entering the system. That just means that clean water takes a team effort.

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