A new report has revealed the dirty truth about America's waterways.
According to the Environment America Research and Policy Center, from January 2016 to September 2017, industrial facilities dumped pollution in America’s waterways that exceeded the levels allowed under the Clean Water Act more than 8,100 times, often without any fines or penalties.
During that period, industry dumped excessive amounts of waste in Maine waters 22 times. More than 40 percent of Maine’s major industrial facilities exceeded their Clean Water Act permits during this time period.
“All Maine rivers and streams should be clean for swimming, drinking water, and wildlife,” said Courtney Lorey with Environment Maine in a press release. “But industrial polluters are still dumping pollution that threatens our health and environment, and no one is holding them accountable.”
And when industries are issued fines, the study concludes they are often too low to deter polluters. In 2017, the median fine issued by the EPA was lower than it had been in any year since 2011.
The annual Troubled Waters report comes during the Trump administration's efforts to deregulate water protection standards and slash the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget for enforcement of environmental protection programs, including the Clean Water Act, by $30.4 million. (Other programs that help protect Maine's environment, including the Environmental Education Grants Program, Wells National Estuary Program and the University of Maine Sea Grant Program would be cut too.)
According to the report, Woodland Pulp Mill in Washington County poured pollutants into the St. Croix River in excess of permit limits, and at one point exceeded its copper limit by 135 percent. Other companies listed in the report for exceeding their limits for pollutants last year include the Bucksport Mill in Hancock, the SD Warren Company in Westbrook, and Penobscot river adjacent GNP-West Inc. and MFGR LLC.
Water polluted with copper can yield harmful health effects to the people and animals who are exposed to it. When humans drink water with a high heavy metal content, their livers and kidneys have to work overtime to produce metallothionein, a chemical that reduces its toxicity. But in fish and other aquatic animals, the effects can be lethal. According to Frances Solomon, a professor at the University of Vancouver and author of an academic article titled “Metal Mining Discharges – Impacts and Controls," high exposure to copper can fray the gills of fish, impacting their ability to regulate and transport salts, which are integral to the normal functioning of their cardiovascular and nervous systems.
"The high toxicity of copper to aquatic organisms and ecosystems warrants source control and treatment measures to prevent and reduce the discharge of copper from operating, closed and abandoned mines to surface water and groundwater," writes Solomon.
Additionally, because of various levels of mercury, PCB, and dioxin contamination in Maine's waterways, people are cautioned to limit their fish consumption, especially bluefish and striped bass, two of Maine’s most popular sport fish.
Although the Clean Water Act of 1972 has helped protect hundreds of miles of Maine waterways, if industries don't strictly adhere to the regulations, a risk of contamination remains present. Lorey says that the Troubled Waters report reveals "an overly lenient system that too often allows pollution without accountability."
“With polluters dumping into Maine waters, the last thing we need are weaker clean water protections and an EPA budget that takes environmental cops off the beat,” said Lorey.