The Quest for Clean Water

Article excerpt

As water pollution threatens our health and environment, we need to implement an expanding array of techniques for its assessment, prevention, and remediation.

In the 1890s, entrepreneur William Love sought to establish a model industrial community in the La Salle district of Niagara Falls, New York. The plan included building a canal that tapped water from the Niagara River for a navigable waterway and a hydroelectric power plant. Although work on the canal was begun, a nationwide economic depression and other factors forced abandonment of the project.

By 1920, the land adjacent to the canal was sold and used as a landfill for municipal and industrial wastes. Later purchased by Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corp., the landfill became a dumping ground for nearly 21,000 tons of mixed chemical wastes before being closed and covered over in the early 1950s. Shortly thereafter, the property was acquired by the Niagara Falls Board of Education, and schools and residences were built on and around the site.

In the ensuing decades, groundwater levels in the area rose, parts of the landfill subsided, large metal drums of waste were uncovered, and toxic chemicals oozed out. All this led to the contamination of surface waters, oily residues in residential basements, corrosion of sump pumps, and noxious odors. Residents began to question if these problems were at the root of an apparent prevalence of birth defects and miscarriages in the neighborhood.

Eventually, in 1978, the area was declared unsafe by the New York State Department of Health, and President Jimmy Carter approved emergency federal assistance. The school located on the landfill site was closed and nearby houses were condemned. State and federal agencies worked together to relocate hundreds of residents and contain or destroy the chemical wastes.

That was the bitter story of Love Canal. Although not the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, it illustrates the tragic consequences of water pollution.

Water quality standards

In addition to toxic chemical wastes, water pollutants occur in many other forms, including pathogenic microbes (harmful bacteria and viruses), excess fertilizers (containing compounds of phosphorus and nitrogen), and trash floating on streams, lakes, and beaches. Water pollution can also take the form of sediment eroded from stream banks, large blooms of algae, low levels of dissolved oxygen, or abnormally high temperatures (from the discharge of coolant water at power plants).

The United States has seen a growing concern about water pollution since the middle of the twentieth century, as the public recognized that pollutants were adversely affecting human health and rendering lakes unswimmable, streams unfishable, and rivers flammable. In response, in 1972, Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments, later modified and referred to as the Clean Water Act. Its purpose was to "restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters."

The Clean Water Act set the ambitious national goal of completely eliminating the discharge of pollutants into navigable waters by 1985, as well as the interim goal of making water clean enough to sustain fish and wildlife, while being safe for swimming and boating. To achieve these goals, certain standards for water quality were established.

The "designated uses" of every body of water subject to the act must first be identified. Is it a source for drinking water? Is it used for recreation, such as swimming? Does it supply agriculture or industry? Is it a significant habitat for fish and other aquatic life? Thereafter, the water must be tested for pollutants. If it fails to meet the minimum standards for its designated uses, then steps must be taken to limit pollutants entering it, so that it becomes suitable for those uses.

On the global level, the fundamental importance of clean water has come into the spotlight. …