Due to Supreme Court rulings that cause some uncertainty in terms of which waterways should be regulated by the Clean Water Act, thousands of the largest water polluters say that the law no longer applies to them, according to EPA and state regulators, reports the New York Times.
As a result, waterways that supply about 117 million Americans with tap water may by unprotected by the Clean Water Act.
At the center of the rulings is the wording — ” navigable waters” — in the Clean Water Act, which was interpreted by regulators to include many large wetlands and streams that connected to major rivers.
The new rulings now indicate that waterways that are entirely in one state and lakes unconnected to larger water systems may not be defined as “navigable waters,” excluding them from the Clean Water Act even if they pollute waterways.
The article cites the Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis, N.M., which recently told the EPA that it no longer considers the base subject to the act. The base dumps wastewater, containing bacteria and human sewage, into a lake on the base.
Adding to the confusion, according to the EPA and state regulators, is that the Supreme Court did not define which waterways are regulated, and now lower courts must decide on a case-by-case basis if the law applies to smaller water areas.
As a result, more than 1,500 major pollution investigations have been halted over the past four years, estimates the EPA, according to the New York Times. Midlevel EPA officials also told the newspaper that internal studies indicated that as many as 45 percent of major polluters might be either outside regulatory reach or in areas where proving jurisdiction is difficult.
The rulings have also resulted in clean water programs being shut down in some states.
To help resolve the issue, some members of Congress have tried to limit the impact of the court decisions over the past two years by introducing legislation known as the Clean Water Restoration Act. It has been approved by a Senate committee but has not been introduced this session in the House.
Upsetting their efforts is a coalition of industry lobbyists that say this would allow the government to regulate everything from standing water in floodplains to creeks that run behind business and residences.
Some EPA officials told the New York Times that the head of the EPA could issue regulations that clarify jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act.