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The Clean Water Act Turns 50

Posted on 10/21/2022 by Roger Marks

The United States’ signature water pollution law turned 50 years old last week; the Clean Water Act (CWA) became law on October 18, 1972.

The President of the United States released a Proclamation recognizing five decades of the CWA last week, which reads in part:

“Before this landmark legislation, America’s waters were in crisis, often flooded and even on fire with toxic pollution and cancer-causing contaminants. Industrial waste and sewage threatened our drinking water, and wetlands disappeared at an alarming rate. The Clean Water Act met these challenges head-on, setting and enforcing national water quality standards, restricting pollution, and investing in wastewater treatment and better wetlands management.”

Presidential Proclamation 10480 (October 17, 2022)

The law passed by Congress five decades ago and known today as the Clean Water Act was in fact an amended version of the 1948 Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA).

What’s In the Clean Water Act?

The Clean Water Act encompasses many programs and compliance standards for US businesses. Some of the most broadly applicable CWA programs include:

National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES)

The NPDES program requires industrial facilities (and others) to obtain permits before they may discharge pollutants to the water through a “point source” like a pipe, storm drain, or gutter. The full definition of point source is found in 40 CFR 122.2.

The program establishes effluent limitations for pollutants and can require facilities to implement technologies to control how much pollution they discharge to the water. NPDES permit requirements also apply to some discharges of stormwater runoff from streets, paved lots, roofs, and other surfaces at industrial facilities.

SPCC Planning and Oil Discharge Notifications

Under the Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) program, certain sites that store, process, refine, distribute, transfer, drill for, or consume oil or oil products must develop and implement a plan to prevent oil spills and limit the impact of spills that occur.

When a “harmful quantity” of oil is released to the water, the CWA’s Discharge of Oil requirements (40 CFR Part 110) require a report to be made to the National Response Center (NRC).

These requirements for preventing, mitigating, and reporting oil spills apply to petroleum products—but also to other types of oils like animal fats, vegetable oils, and others. 

Water Quality Standards

The Clean Water Act requires US EPA and the States to establish water quality standards (WQS) for lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, wetlands, and other bodies of water. These standards vary based on what each body of water will be used for (e.g., fishing, swimming, or drinking) and other factors (40 CFR 131).

These standards may be numeric limits for specific types of contamination (e.g., “less than 3.2 parts per billion of lead”) or general rules that must be followed to protect public health and the environment.

The Clean Water Act Turns 50

50 Years and Still Changing

Even after 50 years in existence, the Clean Water Act continues to evolve.

For example: Together with the Army Corps of Engineers, US EPA is working to develop a more clear and understandable definition of the term “Waters of the United States” or WOTUS.

The definition of WOTUS is crucial to implementation and enforcement of the Clean Water Act—it establishes which bodies of water are covered by the law and which are not. For a look at the progression of efforts to clearly define WOTUS in recent years, visit this Lion News page or click the tag “WOTUS” below. 

Last Live Environmental Training of the Year

Key requirements for Clean Water Act compliance, SPCC plans, oil spill reporting, and NPDES permitting are among the topics covered during Lion’s Complete Environmental Regulations Webinar. Join a Lion instructor for the final webinar of the year on December 5—6.

Get an overview of US EPA’s major air, water, and chemical programs—from the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts to EPCRA, TSCA, Superfund, and more. EH&S professionals who attend can identify the regulations that apply to their facility and locate key requirements to achieve compliance.  

Prefer to train at your own pace? Try the interactive online course.

Tags: Clean Water Act, environmental compliance, NPDES, SPCC, WOTUS

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