Many residents of West Virginia are in their fifth day without water as a result of a chemical spill into the Elk River. Our thoughts go out to the effected communities, and we wish the best to the cleanup crews who are working to contain the spill and restore the water supply. A federal investigation has been launched, which should lead to a better understanding of why the spill occurred and what can be done to prevent the same thing from happening in the future.
The events in West Virginia bring to mind other recent spills in Montana’s Yellowstone River and Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. And while these spills capture headlines, other pollution problems go largely unnoticed. For example, 40 percent of headwater streams in the Western U.S. suffer from abandoned mine pollution. Together, these events remind us that we should not take clean water for granted. The water that flows through our rivers and streams, creating habitat for trout and salmon, and eventually comes out of our taps, is the product of a combination of healthy watersheds, effective regulations, and reliable water delivery and treatment infrastructure. Lately, however, we have been neglecting some of these needs, and it shows. The U.S. House of Representatives, for example, has voted six times in the last three years to weaken the Clean Water Act. The House has repeatedly cut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, which hurts the agency’s ability to provide enforcement oversight and grants for water infrastructure and habitat restoration.
The U.S. Congress continues to keep exemptions from parts of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act on the books for the oil and gas industry. A recent enforcement settlement between the U.S. Justice Department and an energy company over numerous Clean Water Act violations on West Virginia streams and wetlands underscores the need to enforce the Clean Water Act. The company will invest over $6 million dollars in stream restoration work to remediate the 2.2 miles of streams it damaged from its gas operations.
TU is working hard to make sure clean, cold water is available for fish and communities. We develop partnerships—including with oil and gas, and mining companies—and raise money to improve habitat and water quality, and our volunteers dedicate 700,000 hours each year in pursuit of our mission. We are making progress. But we can’t afford to have that progress undermined by ineffective regulations or lack of investment.
We need the EPA and Army Corps to make good on its promise to produce a new rule to clarify which waters are protected under the Clean Water Act. Without the new rule, 20 million acres of wetlands and 59 percent of U.S. stream miles are at risk of losing Clean Water Act protection. We need Congress to provide adequate funding for the EPA’s enforcement responsibilities and grant programs. And we need to make smart decisions that avoid unnecessary risk to our watersheds. For example, saying “no” to large-scale mining in the seismically active headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska—the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery.
As our friends in West Virginia wait to get their water back, let’s all take a moment to think about where our water comes from, and what we need to do to keep it clean.