On the Clean Water Act's 35th Anniversary, Polluters Continue to Contaminate Texas Waterways

AUSTIN— More than 53 percent of industrial and municipal facilities across Texas discharged more pollution into our waterways than their Clean Water Act permits allow in 2005, according to Troubled Waters: An analysis of Clean Water Act compliance, a new report released today by Environment Texas.

“As the Clean Water Act turns 35, polluters continue to foul our rivers, lakes and streams,” said Environment Texas Citizen Outreach Director Brad Hicks. “With so many facilities dumping so much pollution, no one should be surprised that more than half of Texas waterways are unsafe for swimming and fishing. But we should be outraged.”

The goals of the 1972 Clean Water Act are to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into waterways and make all U.S. waterways swimmable and fishable. Over the last three and a half decades, this landmark environmental law has made significant improvements in water quality, but the original goals have yet to be met.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, Environment Texas obtained data on facilities’ compliance with the Clean Water Act between January 1, 2005 and December 31, 2005. Environment Texas researchers found that:

  • Texas had 318 facilities, more than any other state, report exceedances of their Clean Water Act permits. These facilities reported a total of 1340 exceedances.
  • Facilities in Texas often exceeded their Clean Water Act permits by extraordinary amounts. On average, facilities exceeding their permits did so by 143%, nearly 2 and 1/2 times the legal limit.
  • Polluters in Texas reported 64 instances in which they exceeded their Clean Water Act permit by at least 500 percent over the legal limit.

“Facilities in Texas and across the country continue to dump more pollution into our waterways than is allowed by law,” said Hicks. Hicks noted that the findings are likely just the tip of the polluted iceberg, since the data that Environment Texas analyzed includes only “major” facilities and does not include pollution discharged into waters by the thousands of minor facilities across the country.

Over the last six years, the Bush administration has proposed or enacted numerous policies that weaken the Clean Water Act. These include: two separate policies that eliminate Clean Water Act protections for streams and wetlands that feed and clean treasured lakes, rivers and bays; funding cuts to EPA’s budget, including significant cuts to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund; and policies that allow more sewage pollution into waterways.

Environment Texas called on the Bush administration to end its efforts to weaken federal clean water safeguards and for Congress to pass the Clean Water Restoration Act, legislation to ensure all U.S. waterways are protected by the Clean Water Act. Environment Texas applauded Representative Lloyd Doggett of Austin and 171 other members of Congress for co-sponsoring the Clean Water Restoration Act. Environment Texas urged Congress to mark the anniversary of the Clean Water Act passing this important clean water bill.

“The original intent of the Clean Water Act was to protect ALL the waters of the U.S., not just some,” added David Foster, Clean Water Action’s Texas Program Director. “Sadly, the Bush Administration has reinterpreted the law to exempt millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of miles of rivers and streams from the Act’s protection on the dubious grounds that these waterways dry up for part of the year. This misinterpretation of the law puts as much as 59% of America’s stream miles outside of Alaska at risk—including 78% of the stream miles in Texas. These intermittent waterways contribute to the drinking water of over 110 million people. The Clean Water Restoration Act will restore protections that Americans assumed have been in place since the Act’s passage 35 years ago this month.”

Environment Texas also called on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to finally strengthen its penalty policy to better deter polluters from violating their permits. According to a Dec 2003 report by the State Auditor, the enforcement program at TCEQ "does not consistently ensure violators are held accountable" and that polluters "often have economic benefits that exceed their penalties, which could reduce their incentive to comply." At a meeting on Sep. 7, 2007, the Commissioners of the TCEQ instructed staff to develop a new rule to address this "economic benefit of non-compliance." Unfortunately, as proposed the new rule would still allow polluters to keep the vast majority of illegally obtained profits.

"We've caught development contractors in the act of discharging polluted runoff from construction sites, and they get a slap on the wrist from TCEQ, sometimes not even a $1 fine. Polluters must pay when they pollute, or else they'll just keep dumping dirty runoff into our creeks, rivers, and aquifers," says Colin Clark of Save Our Springs Alliance.

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A full list of impaired waterways in Texas is available here.