RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Clean Water Regs Flow From Feds

In late 2015, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers finalized a federal rule allowing Clean Water Act protections to extend to small streams and wetlands. A precursor to the Clean Water Act was first written in 1948 and rewritten in 1972 and was considered to extend to large bodies of water like rivers. If you wanted to dump something from your factory into a river, you needed to follow rules and get a permit. The 2015 rules take in smaller bodies—streams as well as rivers.

The release of the new rules came just a couple of months after the release of toxins into a creek from the old Gold King Mine near Silverton, Colo. The toxins included heavy metals like cadmium, lead and arsenic, which were part of the garbage of the mining operation that had been stored in a pit on the mine site decades ago. The garbage kept flowing while taxpayer-financed remediation continued, but the media quickly forgot about those toxins as the tournaments for president grabbed the headlines.

The new CWA rules, which could have more importance in the long run than gold mine pollution, have endured. And so have questions about who is responsible when pollution happens. Since its release, the new CWA rules have been argued over, and amendments forced by industry through their US Senate shills to rein in the rules. Part of the problem, as always, is language. What is the meaning of a “navigable” waterway, now regulated by the Act?

CWA supporters argue that “navigable,” which sounds like a creek you could put a canoe in, includes small streams that might never see a paddle. Those streams provide habitat for critters and drinking water for as many as 117 million Americans.

And “point” pollution, which is regulated, and defined as coming out of a pipe or ditch, is different than “non-point” which is unregulated and flows off a wetland, forest, field, golf course or front yard. But, at what point does “non-point,” flowing toward a ditch or pipe, become “non-point”? Who, exactly is responsible for pollution that comes from a non-point source and flows toward a city water plant?

Responsibility, that’s the crux of the matter.

Very quickly, agribusiness commodity groups came out against the CWA, even though the new rules clarify exemptions for farming, ranching and forestry. Agribusiness terrified property owners with images of government agents coming onto land and collecting samples from mud puddles and ditches.

Like all arguments, both sides have some merit. But polarization doesn’t take opposing truths into account. And, clean water can mean the difference between health and disease, life and death.

Here in mid-Missouri, a few months after release of the CWA rules, an introductory William Woods University class in biology went out to test the creek that runs through their campus. This creek, the Stinson, with headwaters in my neighborhood, meanders through farmland and subdivisions until it hits the county seat, and then passes through two college campuses, a couple of parks, the State Hospital, the city sewage plant and on through more farmland to the Missouri River, the Mississippi and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico. In dry times, it’s dry, and in wet times it roars, but, all this way, with the exception of its flow through the sewage treatment plant and the attention of a few landowners, nobody pays much attention to it. You might compare it to any anonymous creek in your own neighborhood.

In the early 1990s, when the DNR first started noting such things, Stinson Creek was classified as “impaired.” But, again, nobody paid much attention. Water runs downhill, we’ve all known this, and if the Stinson picked up a little manure, a few household chemicals, some golf course herbicides, runoff from the streets, pills flushed down the toilet, well, there ya go.

Most Missouri creeks follow similar paths to the Gulf, but, amazing as it sounds, there are only one or two creeks with runs that have been documented start to finish. Permits are written for more slime to be dumped in them without noting what else is going in, upstream or down. We’ve never had one catch fire, at least as far as I know, so it must be OK.

The Stinson, for its part, has received government money, but little of it has gone to improve its health. Which can be measured, by the way, by counting the types and the numbers of critters that survive in it. And measured chemically with the help of a few gadgets that analyze nitrogen, phosphorous, oxygen contents and the like.

Instead of improving its health, the creek’s path has been beautified. A walking trail was paid for by the Department of Transportation, enhancing the Stinson’s trip through Fulton. Wildflowers and native trees embellish it through Westminster College.

So, imagine the surprise of the WWU students, on a field trip to test the waters, when they found themselves confronting a load of icky goo. Knowing they were in over their heads, so to speak, they took samples and sent them off to the Department of Natural Resources for analysis. Long story short: The manure came from a storage pit built 20 years ago, by a dairy that went out of business. Since then, the pit was sold to a new owner, then leased to another. So, who’s responsible for the cleanup?

Like the Gold Mine pollution, the taxpayers will be burdened with it.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2016

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