For humans, and practically every other living thing on Earth, water means life. So, you can see why it's important to keep our waters safe and clean. There are nearly 7 billion people on the planet, so it's not an easy task.
Clean Water Act
The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the major federal law designed to keep US waters pollution- and toxin-free. It applies to all sorts of waters, including coastal waters and shorelines, rivers, streams, and wetlands. The CWA's job is protect our waters safe for us and fish and wildlife, too.
The CWA does this in several ways, but the main tool is the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES). Basically, no one is allowed to put certain toxins or pollutants into waters covered by the CWA without a permit. If you get a permit, it will tell you how much of a particular toxin or pollutant you may release into the water.
The CWA covers everyone, from individuals like you and me to business and corporations to company executives.
Enforcement and Penalties
The law can be violated in any number of ways. For example, the CWA's violated if you release more of pollutant than allowed by a permit or a pollutant not covered by the permit. It's also violated if you:
- Dump a drum of chemicals in a nearby lake
- Run a sewer line or pipe from your home or business into a nearby lake or stream
- Dump used motor oil down a storm water drain or sewer
Anyone who violates the CWA faces stiff civil fines and possible criminal prosecution. Fines for violating a permit or not having a permit may be up to $27,500 per violation per day.
For criminal negligence, there's a fine of $2,500 up to $25,000 per day of violation, and/or up to one year in jail. If the violation puts another person in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury, there's a fine of up to $250,000, imprisonment for up to 15 years, or both for individuals. For businesses, the fine may be up to $1,000,000.
The US Environmental Protection Agency may file civil actions to enforce the CWA, and the US Department of Justice handles criminal investigations. Also, citizens like you and me can file civil suits to enforce the CWA, too.
This is only a brief and general description of the CWA; it's in fact a complicated law. Read the law carefully or talk to an attorney if you have specific questions or face legal action under the CWA.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can I sue BP if my ocean front property is damages by oil or if I lose rental income from vacationers?
- What should I do if I see a nieghbor dumping oil, paint, and other chemicals into the sewer?
- Is the little creek behind my house covered by the CWA?