EPA Protects Drinking Water, Faith Groups Respond

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When crude oil spilled into a seasonal stream in Texas in 2007, the EPA could do nothing; it couldn’t impose a fine or even require cleanup. A loophole in the Clean Water Act shielded the polluters from accountability and made it impossible for the EPA to protect drinking water and the health of the surrounding community.

But that loophole closed yesterday when the Obama Administration finalized the Clean Water Rule and gave the EPA clear authority to protect intermittent streams and wetlands.

“For the water in the rivers and lakes in our communities that flow to our drinking water to be clean, the streams and wetlands that feed them need to be clean too,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Supreme Court Muddies the Waters for the EPA

Most Americans probably think that water in the United States is protected from pollution under federal laws like the Clean Water Act. But after a series of Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006, the EPA’s authority over intermittent streams and wetlands was called into question. The EPA could only assert its authority and protect these waters after conducting a resource- and time-intensive analysis.

According to Granta Nakayama, who served as the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance at the EPA until 2009, performing these analyses negatively impacted the EPA’s enforcement efforts, “by significantly increasing resources expended on gathering jurisdictional evidence, reducing the predictability of these evaluations, and increasing the time it takes to complete the determination.”

Nakayama said that between July 2006 and March 2007 the agency decided not to pursue formal enforcement in 304 cases because of jurisdictional uncertainty.

Polluters Take Advantage of the Ambiguity

The New York Times investigated the impact of the Supreme Court’s decisions in 2010, and found that as many as 45 percent of major polluters were either outside regulatory reach or in areas where proving jurisdiction was overwhelmingly difficult.

The article told stories of polluters who claimed the law no longer applied to them. For example, Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis, NM informed EPA officials that it no longer considered itself subject to its authority. It was dumping wastewater containing bacteria and human sewage into a lake on the base.

A pipe manufacturer in Alabama was convicted and fined millions of dollars for dumping oil, lead, zinc, and other chemicals into a large creek. But an appellate court overturned the conviction and fine in light of the Supreme Court’s decisions. The company eventually settled by agreeing to pay a smaller amount and submit to probation.

The Clean Water Rule Clears the Waters

With the passage of the Clean Water Rule, the EPA, once again, has authority to protect intermittent streams and wetlands and prosecute polluters. This is good news for the 117 million Americans — one in three people — who get their drinking water from streams that formerly lacked protection, and the wildlife that depends on a healthy ecosystem. But it’s also good news for the American spirit.

When the EPA proposed the Clean Water Rule, it received thousands of comments that stressed the spiritual importance of protecting water in the United States.

“In our culture, water has such a greater meaning, it is held in regards as the blood of our mother earth,” wrote Chris McGeshick, Tribal Chairman, Sakoagon Chippewa Community. “It is this blood that sustains our wild rice which is a part of our identity, our ancestors were told ‘ go where the food grows on the water,’ these are the places of great significance to our culture and spirituality.”

“Water pollution is an immense environmental and political challenge, and for the Reform Jewish Movement, it is a moral and spiritual challenge as well,” wrote Barbara Weinstein, Director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. “We understand that as stewards of the environment, we have a responsibility to safeguard our planet so that future generations will have clean, potable water.”

“As communities of faith across a broad spectrum of traditions, we understand water as a symbol of preservation, cleansing, and renewal. Water is a gift from God,” wrote faith leaders in Louisiana.

Clean Water is a Pro-Life Issue

The Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) led a campaign to support the Clean Water Rule earlier this year. Over 70,000 pro-life Christians signed their petition, which stated: “As pro-life Christians, we believe that it is essential that the water we give our children is clean and pure.”

Rev. Mitch Hescox, the president and CEO of the EEN, has stressed the connection between environmental protection and pro-life activism before. He presents an argument for conservation that appeals to conservatives — a throwback to the earlier days of the Reagan Administration.

“Clean water is a matter of life and death. All of life requires water, clean pure water. It’s something we take for granted, but shouldn’t,” said Hescox in a statement commending the new Clean Water Rule. “The new rule will allow us to enforce The Clean Water Act in ways not available since the Reagan Administration. The standard clarifies what waters are covered under CWA and takes away 20 years of mud-filled confusion.”

Clean Water for Climate Change

The Clean Water Rule’s clarification comes at a critical time. As climate change puts more communities at risk, the protection of water resources is even more essential. Droughts, sea level rise, stronger storms, and water temperatures threaten the quantity and quality of America’s water.

Interfaith Power and Light (IPL), an organization that provides the religious response to climate change, has also voiced its support of the Clean Water Rule.

“Protecting the nations streams and wetlands from pollution answers God’s call to be good stewards of the ecosystem services provided for our health and welfare,” said the Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, president of IPL. “We are grateful that the EPA takes that call seriously and honors our moral responsibilities.”

The Fight Isn’t Over

Polluters aren’t happy about increased EPA regulation and have promised to fund challenges to the Clean Water Rule. Already, members of congress have voiced their opposition to clean drinking water and healthy ecosystems.

“The Environmental Protection Agency is disregarding the input of businesses, agricultural interests, and property owners and asking Mississippians for their blind trust as it implements these far-reaching regulations. People are right to be skeptical,” said Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran.

But people should be skeptical of senators like Cochran who opposes something as simple as clean drinking water. In 2010, he earmarked $132 million in spending for his campaign donors — proof that he cares more about special interests than people.

Special interests must not continue to threaten our waters. We need clean water for ourselves, for our children, and for our spirit. Water is life — we can live without crude oil, we can’t live without water. Even though the Clean Water Rule is a victory for millions of Americans, the fight isn’t over.

As Hescox said, “We must ensure foul water doesn’t harm our children and loved ones.”

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About the Author

I'm an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .