To most Western North Carolinians, it might seem obvious that protecting access to clean water should be a top priority for our elected leaders. Besides making up 60 percent of the human body and being essential for drinking, irrigation and fisheries, water is a vital regional asset for recreation and scenic beauty.
But even putting all that aside, it’s also one of our most powerful economic engines. At a time when "jobs" is the buzzword in politics, conservative politicians are attacking one of our economy’s key building blocks. In 2008, trout fishing alone had a total economic impact of $174 million in WNC, according to a study by the Wildlife Resources Commission; we also have a thriving white-water rafting industry.
Yet in the last few weeks, while attention was focused on the debt ceiling, the U.S. House of Representatives ignored the will of the general public, sports enthusiasts and environmental voices, attempting one of the most brazen rollbacks of the Clean Water Act since its passage in 1972. Their attacks on both water quality and jobs included the ironically named Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act and the Reducing Regulatory Burdens Act of 2011. Those of us who care about clean water, however, have dubbed these bills the "Dirty Water Act" and "The Drinking Pesticides Act," respectively. Both bills have passed the House and are awaiting Senate action.
The intent of the "Dirty Water Act" is to allow individual states to veto critical Clean Water Act protections, essentially creating a race to the bottom in water-quality regulation. The law would establish a regulatory structure similar to what existed before the Clean Water Act, when the nation’s rivers actually caught fire and the French Broad was commonly described as "too thick to drink and too thin to plow." Right now, North Carolina calls the balls and strikes on water quality through its enforcement of the federal law, but the Environmental Protection Agency acts as commissioner, ensuring that all states play by the same rules.
The "Dirty Water Act" would completely remove the EPA from the equation, giving states almost 100 percent oversight and enforcement of environmental laws. Meanwhile, North Carolina just passed a law prohibiting any state environmental or human-health protections from going beyond what the EPA requires. So if the EPA no longer required any protections, where would that leave us?
One of the cornerstones of the Clean Water Act was establishing specific water-quality standards for various pollutants. And as the science improves and new contaminants emerge, these standards are adjusted to better protect both the environment and human health. This ongoing process becomes increasingly important as we learn about new contaminants from plastics, medications being flushed into our rivers, and pollutants such as coal ash. Under the proposed law, however, the EPA’s current three-year review process would be reduced to a rubber stamp, with no oversight to ensure that state standards actually protected the environment and public health.
But the final straw in the "Dirty Water Act" is so bold it’s laughable. Despite many conservative lawmaker's disdain for the EPA and its efforts to ensure fishable, swimmable and drinkable water for all, the bill decrees that states would continue to receive EPA funding regardless of how poorly they protected public health and the environment.
In Western North Carolina, it’s become increasingly clear that without EPA oversight, environmental protections simply won’t move forward. The federal agency recently stepped in to protect the Pigeon River when North Carolina tried to issue a permit that not only violated the Clean Water Act but ensured that the Blue Ridge Paper Products plant in Canton could once again cause massive fish kills and continue polluting the Pigeon River. Also in direct violation of the Clean Water Act, the N.C. General Assembly recently overrode the mandatory reclassification of Boylston Creek in Henderson County as a trout stream meriting greater protection. The EPA will review this decision and perhaps take action against the state for this clear violation. Under the Dirty Water Act, however, the federal agency would most likely lose this power.
The "Drinking Pesticides Act" would allow pesticides to be sprayed directly into your favorite swimming hole, lake or river. It would make it much more likely that the fish kill that happened several years ago on the Mills River — a drinking-water source for both Hendersonville and Asheville — would be repeated in the future.
In order to underscore the importance of our waterways and encourage community involvement to block the passage of these detrimental bills, the Western North Carolina Alliance is holding the grand finale of its Save the French Broad campaign Thursday, Aug. 25 at The Orange Peel (see box, “A Wail of an Event”).
This is your chance to celebrate the French Broad River, enjoy great music — and let your voice be heard in the fight for everyone's right to clean water!
— French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson works for the Western North Carolina Alliance.