WASHINGTON - Republicans in Congress are aggressively attacking the Clean Water Act - a landmark 1970 law created the year after Ohio's horrifically polluted Cuyahoga River spontaneously burst into flame.
These attacks - coupled with assaults on other federal laws protecting water resources - are being championed by Ohio freshman Republican Bob Gibbs, a hog farmer-turned-Congressman who heads a key water subcommittee.
Gibbs chairs the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, a subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
In March, Gibbs and the GOP-led House fast-tracked legislation allowing pesticide spraying over waterways without Clean Water Act permits - despite strong evidence of growing pesticide concentrations in U.S. waters.
Then Gibbs gathered 170 House signatures on a letter to President Barack Obama bucking reinstated U.S. waterway protections that had been severely cut under the Bush administration. Gibbs also opposes U.S. Environmental Protection Agency efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and Florida's waters.
His argument? Money. "When we're making some money," Gibbs says, "we could focus on maybe improving waterways."
True, protecting our drinking water, coastlines, lakes, and rivers does cost money. But so do hospitalizations for e-coli and cancer, and cognitive damage to children from mercury. Likewise, as we learned from Great Lakes dead zones and the Exxon Valdez and BP Deepwater spills, environmental remediation costs far more than prevention.
Despite that, the GOP's war against water regulation, led by Gibbs, continues to escalate. Republicans are drafting legislation that will increase sewage in public waters by granting wastewater treatment utilities "flexibility" in meeting Clean Water Act guidelines.
And, Kentucky Representative Edward Whitfield is leading a fight to delay new EPA rules limiting over 80 toxics emitted by the nation's 400-plus coal-burning power plants. These poisons create acid rain that leaves lakes devoid of life and loads waterways with mercury and other pollutants.
In hearings this May, coal-friendly House members and industry representatives testified against EPA mountaintop removal policy, rules that grant permits only after evaluating the impact of toxic mining waste dumped into waterways. They labeled the permitting process "an assault on Appalachian jobs." Not one scientist, health expert, or local citizen was invited to testify.
In last February's budget fight, House lawmakers slashed critical EPA programs, threatening the drinking water of 117 million people and endangering thousands of waterways and wetlands. The League of Conservation Voters dubbed this "the most anti-environmental piece of legislation in recent memory."
However, another bill could have more disastrous, long-lasting impacts.
Under the guise of cost-cutting, Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, has introduced legislation merging the Department of Energy and the EPA into the Department of Energy and Environment. Such a move would absorb the cash-strapped regulatory agency into an agency that assists and advocates for Big Oil and Coal - leaving no one guarding the henhouse, with dire consequences for U.S. drinking water and fisheries.
This anti-environment agenda, disguised as fiscal responsibility, is both payback to corporate supporters and a political statement. "Protection of the environment is now a partisan battleground," said Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat. "I've never been in a Congress where there was such an overwhelming disconnect between science and public policy."
It wasn't always so. It was a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who signed the Clean Water Act and created the EPA to halt rampant pollution and protect public health. President Gerald Ford, also a Repubican, signed the Safe Drinking Water Act and Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. For decades, water protection had wide, bipartisan support.
Even with these protections, a 2010 EPA report on America's water quality is dire. "Despite our best efforts and many local successes, our aquatic ecosystems are declining nationwide. The rate at which new waters are being listed for water quality impairments exceeds the pace at which restored waters are removed from the list."
Roughly one-third of our lakes, wetlands and estuaries are polluted; 315 contaminants have been found in U.S. tap water, including lead, chromium-6, pesticides and rocket fuel.
A public opinion poll released May 4 by Pew Research Center for the People & the Press finds that 71 percent of respondents across the political spectrum believe the environment deserves protection.
"Republican groups in the political typology have long been divided in their views of the environment and that remains the case today," writes Pew in its analysis of the poll. "Staunch Conservatives and Libertarians are the only groups in which majorities say the U.S. has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment. In all other groups - including Main Street Republicans and the GOP-leaning Disaffecteds - most say that this country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment."