Clean water under attack in the U.S. Congress

Dear Editorial Board,

From Lake Michigan to local streams, clean water is vital to our health, recreation, and wildlife. To protect clean water, U.S. EPA is currently considering a rule to restore Clean Water Act protections to thousands of waterways here in Illinois and across the country.

But polluters and their allies are working to derail this clean water rule in Congress. With a rare joint hearing of Congressional committees now scheduled to review the rule on Wednesday February 4th, now is the time for your editorial page to urge Senator Durbin to stand up to polluters and defend the clean water rule.


Illinoisans care deeply about clean water. Waters like Lake Michigan are where we love to swim, fish, canoe, kayak or just enjoy the scenery. They supply us with clean drinking water. We should be doing all we can to protect them.

For more than 40 years, the Clean Water Act has protected our health, our environment, and our wildlife by reducing the pollution in streams, lakes, rivers, wetlands and other waterways. But over the past decade, shortsighted Supreme Court decisions (SWANCC in 2001 and Rapanos in 2006) have opened up loopholes that leave many of our waters without clear protection of the Clean Water Act.


These loopholes leave key waterways unprotected – including many of the streams and wetlands that feed and filter our most iconic waterways. The waterways at risk include:

  • More than half America’s streams, totaling more than 2 million miles1 including 56% or more than 48,000 miles of Illinois’ streams
  • The waterways that feed the drinking water for more than 117 million Americans2 including 1.68 million Illinoisans.
  • 20 million acres of wetlands3

As a result, EPA has had to let hundreds of polluters off the hook across the country, and is hampered in its ability to hold our state officials accountable when they fail to protect our waters.

Last year, three cases reminded us of the bad old days, when polluters used many of America’s waters as their own private sewers:

  • In January, 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.
  • After a Duke Energy pipeline collapsed in February, more than 39,000 tons of coal ash spread 70 miles down North Carolina’s Dan River.
  • In August, a toxic algae bloom left 500,000 people in and around Toledo, Ohio, without drinking water. The algae contained cyanotoxins – a substance so potent that the military considered “weaponizing” it.

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 Ohio’s Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it caught on fire. Now is the time to act, to make sure we move forward on clean water, not backward.


On March 25, 2014, the EPA proposed a rule to restore Clean Water Act protections to streams and wetlands across the country. The announcement came after the EPA released a scientific report on the connectivity of our waterways. The report, which pulls together more than 1000 peer-reviewed studies, makes the scientific case for fixing the Clean Water Act and restoring protections to all America’s streams and wetlands.4


Last November, more than 800,000 Americans submitted comments in support EPA’s proposed clean water rule. In addition, 400 local elected officials, 300 farmers, 300 small business owners, 100 academics and 89 members of Congress have called on the Obama administration to restore Clean Water Act protections to streams and wetlands across the country. Here in Illinois, that support includes over 20,000 Illinoisans calling upon the EPA to support the rule.


A wide range of polluting industries have vested interests in keeping streams and wetlands exempt from the Clean Water Act, and they are lobbying furiously to have Congress stop the rule:

The oil and gas industry, which has thousands of miles of pipelines running through wetlands, has threatened legal warfare against rule. Coal companies, which are dumping the wastes from their mining into mountain streams, stand to benefit if the Clean Water Act fails to protect these streams. Powerful developers want to pave over wetlands without restrictions. (Remember, it was a Michigan developer named Rapanos who filed the key court case that created the loopholes.) And lastly, corporate agribusiness, whose huge factory farms generate millions of pounds of animal manure has 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 are, of course, completely untrue.


Right before his debut as senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell declared his determination to kill U.S. EPA’s proposed clean water rule, in an interview on CNN. Days later, Congress scheduled joint hearings on the rule for February 4th – to be held by both the Senate Environment & Public Works Commmittee and the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. There is little doubt that the hearing is intended as a prelude for votes in both chambers to block EPA from finalizing the clean water rule.

Now is a critical time for Senator Durbin to stand up and issue a public statement in support of the clean water rule.

Thank you for your consideration,

Wouter Hammink

2 Ibid.

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