EPA administrator visits Cleveland to commemorate 50 years of the Clean Water Act
Environmental Protection Agency administrators, U.S. legislators and environmental advocates gathered beside the Cuyahoga River Tuesday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, and to highlight the nation’s progress in passing additional water legislation.
“What we all hope for today at the EPA is that this moment is a powerful reminder of when we come together, when we work together, anything is possible,” EPA Assistant Administrator Radhika Fox said. “And of course, what better place to celebrate than here at the banks of the Cuyahoga River?”
The Clean Water Act took effect in 1972 following dozens of fires on the Cuyahoga River, as recently as 1969, and severe water pollution across the country. Over the last 50 years, Fox said the Clean Water Act served as a framework for clean water policies and regulations that protect waterways across the United States.
The final fire on the river occurred during a rising era of environmental consciousness, White House Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality Brenda Mallory said. The grassroots movement advocated for livable communities and clean air and water, which motivated Congress to enact the Clean Water Act and several other environmental policies.
“It's important to remember that this did not happen overnight. Rather, it was the result of advocacy for healthier rivers, waters [and] communities,” she said. “And as I reflect on the last 50 years, I'm reminded of the power of the collective voice all pulling in the same direction.”
Speakers included Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and EPA Administrator Michael Regan, among others, with Regan emphasizing the passing of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which includes more than $50 billon for water infrastructure projects.
“We are so honored and blessed to have a president in D.C. who truly believes that we need to change America one city at a time,” Bibb said.
The infrastructure bill makes the single largest investment in water infrastructure in U.S. history and will fund projects to remove lead pipes, build climate-resilient water systems and tackle harmful "forever chemicals" known as PFAS.
“We know that investing in water infrastructure is one of the single best investments we can make,” Regan said, “not only to protect public health and safeguard the environment, but to stimulate local job creation while laying a strong foundation for economic vitality.”
Ohio will receive $240 million in 2022, and billions more over the next five years, Regan said. The money will be used to create about 3,700 new jobs, and to restore the country’s waterways.
Bibb emphasized the importance of Cleveland’s history in relation the Clean Water Act, specifically when it comes to the city’s first Black mayor, Carl Stokes.
“Carl Stokes, when this river caught on fire, he led a cross nation tour to show folks the importance of making sure that cities like Cleveland had the resources they need to truly make sure that everyone had access to good, clean drinking water,” Bibb said. “Now, 50 years later, … we have one of the freshest rivers in America, and that speaks to leadership of everyone in this room.”
It was fires on rivers like the Cuyahoga, including the Rouge River that runs through Michigan, that inspired U.S Rep. Debbie Dingell’s husband, the late Congressman John Dingell, to join former Mayor Stokes in the fight for clean water.
“John did not imagine a law that simply reduced water pollution,” Dingell said. “He envisioned a law that would work together with other environmental laws to eliminate the discharge of pollutants into our drinking water supplies and to require the adoption of drinking water standards that protect the public health.”
SeMia Bray, co-director of the Black Environmental Leaders Association, said she is pleased to see how far the nation has come, and how much cleaner Ohio’s bodies of water are, compared to when her grandparents migrated from the Jim Crow south to Cleveland.
“I'm proud to say that I can stand here and say with confidence that it's a lot safer and a lot cleaner than it was then,” she said. “And for that, I am thankful for so many people in this room for taking the time, in everyday what you do, to make sure that this water is cleaner in Cleveland, Ohio and in Lake Erie than ever before.”
While the infrastructure legislation sets the groundwork for the next 50 years, Regan said, it’s important to not only promise and pass water infrastructure legislation, but to also invite people from all backgrounds and demographics have a seat at the table to ensure the legislation serves historically underrepresented communities.
“All people in this country, no matter the color of their skin, the community they live in or the amount of money they have in their pocket, deserve the opportunity to lead a healthy and blessed life,” he said. “That opportunity begins and ends with the clean air we breathe and the clean water we drink, and no child and no person in America should be denied those fundamental rights.”