Historical and Regulatory Aspects

Environmental awareness and activism is not a present-day concept:

In the mid-1700s Benjamin Franklin and others petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly to stop dumping waste and attempted to regulate waste disposal and water pollution. European countries were correlating sickness with lead and mercury in the late 1700s. In 1855, Chicago became the first U.S. city with a comprehensive sewer plan, and all U.S. towns with populations over 4,000 had city sewers by 1905.

In 1899 the Refuse Act prevented some obvious pollution of streams and placed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in charge of permits and regulation.

In 1914 U.S. government agencies began pollution surveys of streams and harbors. Reports filed by the early 1920s showed heavy damage from oil dumping, mine runoff, untreated sewage, and industrial wastes.


A settling pond, usually man-made, collects and slows water flow so that suspended solids (sediments) have time to precipitate or settle out of the water. Some applications of settling ponds include capturing runoff from farms (agricultural waste), construction projects (soil sediment) and mines (sediment and toxic waste). Settling ponds eventually fill and must be dredged to remain in operation. Polluted water from abandoned mines is diverted to settling ponds to remove solids such as iron oxide. When dredged, these sediments must be treated as contaminated waste. Pilot projects are underway to recapture iron oxide for use in paint pigments.

nonpoint source pollution pollution originating from a broad area, such as agricultural runoff or automobile emissions

In 1924 the Oil Pollution Control Act prohibited discharge from any vessel within the three-mile limit, except by accident.

In 1948 the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and active House and Senate Public Works Committee in water pollution came about.

In 1956 Congress passed the Water Pollution Control Act, in 1961 the Clean Water Act, and in 1965 the Water Quality Act, setting standards for states.

In 1970 Congress and the president established the EPA.

In 1972 Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (the "Clean Water Act").

In 1973 EPA issued the first NPDES permits.

In 1974 Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The Clean Water Act of 1972. Said to be one of the most significant pieces of environmental regulations ever enacted, the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 was prompted by growing national concern for the environment in the late 1960s, fueled by such concerns as the burning Cuyahoga River in Ohio, an unfishable, unswimmable Potomac River, and a nearly dead Lake Erie.

National goals and objectives were established "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters." There were two major goals:

1. Eliminate the discharge of all pollutants into navigable waters of the United States; and

2. Achieve an interim level of water quality that provides for the protection of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and recreation (the "fishable, swim-mable" goal).

To help do this, the following were established:

A state grant program to support the construction of sewage treatment plants; the NPDES program, whose goal was to eliminate discharges to U.S. waters; and technological standards or discharge limits that had to be met, based on water-quality standards set by the states.

A minimum required percent removal of pollutants was added in 1985.

Secondary treatment was required, and limits were set for three major effluent parameters: biological oxygen demand, suspended solids, and pH.

The Water Quality Act of 1987 made several changes, addressing (1) excess toxic pollutants in some waters and (2) nonpoint source pollution. The construction grant program was phased out and replaced by financing projects with revolving fund, low-interest-rate loans. The amendments passed in 1987 also addressed storm-water controls and permits, regulation of toxics in sludge, and problems in estuaries. Penalties were added for permit violations. Also initiated were sludge-disposal regulations and funding for studies relative to nonpoint and toxic pollution sources.

The 1972 act has provided remarkable achievements, but there is still a long way to go. Forty percent of waters assessed by states still do not meet water-quality standards, mostly due to pollution from nonpoint sources. Other than from storm or combined storm sewer overflows, most of the remaining problem is not from pipes (point sources) but from sources such as farming and forestry runoff, construction sites, urban streets (storm water), automobiles, and atmospheric depositions, such as from power-plant air emissions (nonpoint sources). Current approaches to addressing nonpoint pollution include targeting and permitting by given watersheds and TMDL (total maximum daily load for a river stretch) assessments.

Many of the facilities funded by federal construction grants, which make up the wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure, are wearing out and are now undersized. Many, many dollars are needed to keep providing adequate treatment to maintain the status quo, let alone meet the needs of a growing populace.

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