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Thursday, June 26, 2014 12:01 am

EPA to step up water pollution enforcement

New rule would protect seasonal waterways

 

It has been on the books since 1972, but the federal Clean Water Act has always been a bit unclear about exactly which waterways it protected. That’s set to change with a rule proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but business groups are pushing Congress to block the change.

The rule change would specify that wetlands and small streams are protected under federal regulations, which would prohibit dumping in the wetlands and small streams that feed larger bodies of water like the Illinois River. For Illinois, that would likely mean a reduction in the mercury, nitrates and other chemical substances routinely dumped in the state’s rivers.

More than than 6.1 million pounds of chemicals were released in Illinois waters in 2012, according to a report issued on June 19 by Chicago-based Environment Illinois. For perspective, that’s the weight of 733,535 gallons of water, which would more than fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. Illinois’ share of dumped chemicals ranked it 13th among all states, with Indiana leading the pack at more than 17.7 million pounds of chemicals dumped.

The report warns that the release of chemicals linked to cancer, developmental disorders and fertility problems happens frequently across the nation, with more than 206 million pounds of such chemicals released in 2012.

Lisa Nikodem, campaign director for Environment Illinois, says the most pressing issue for central Illinois is the waste produced by confined animal feeding operations and slaughterhouses, which can release manure and other potentially dangerous substances into waterways.

“The need to protect our water is clear and pressing,” Nikodem said.

The report identified the Cargill pork plant in Beardstown, about 40 miles west of Springfield, as releasing more than 2 million pounds of nitrate compounds into the environment. Nitrate compounds can cause severe illness in infants and domestic animals, according to the EPA. The Cargill plant sits on the watershed of the Sangamon River, which flows into the Illinois River. Cargill has worked to reduce the volume of nitrates it releases, although the Environment Illinois report ranks the plant as having the 30th largest volume of toxic chemical releases in the nation during 2012.

Although releasing chemicals already requires a permit when the target is a river, polluters often get away with dumping into a smaller “rain-dependent” stream when the stream doesn’t feed into a protected river.

The EPA used to interpret the Clean Water Act as covering ponds, streams and wetlands that were only sometimes connected to larger rivers, lakes and other bodies of water. That changed after a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 held that the wording of the Clean Water Act means it doesn’t apply to waterways that are isolated when the water level is low. The EPA in late March proposed a regulation change to address the Supreme Court cases and bring those waterways back under the EPA’s jurisdiction.

The agency says the rule change will actually save states money because the less ambiguous rules will result in fewer legal battles from businesses which dump chemicals. However, it’s likely the EPA will face a legal battle over its rule change proposal from those same businesses and from Congress. Earlier this month, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee approved prohibiting the Army Corps of Engineers from enforcing the EPA’s rule change. Claiming it would give the government jurisdiction “over nearly all areas with any hydrologic connection to downstream navigable waters, including man-made conveyances such as ditches,” a group of 231 House members also sent a letter to the EPA demanding retraction of the rule.

The agency is taking public comment on its proposal through Oct. 20. For more information, visit www2.epa.gov/uswaters.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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