There is no more ‘away’ " part one
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Before the 20th century, the routine way cities and industries got rid of their wastewater was to discharge it into the nearest waterway so it would go “away.” This worked pretty well if the discharge was into an ocean or a large river, where most of the larger cities were. But Chicago, which by 1890 had rapidly grown to a population of three-quarters of a million to become the second largest city in the U.S., and is located at the south end of Lake Michigan ” the source of its drinking water ” soon discovered that Lake Michigan was no longer “away.” The solution that was adopted was to form a sanitary district for the purpose of constructing a “sanitary canal” connected into the Illinois River system, which emptied into the Mississippi River. This sanitary canal would make it possible to divert Chicago’s sewage away from Lake Michigan, using water from Lake Michigan to flush it down the canal. With the city’s population growing to more than 2 million in 1910, it became necessary to treat the wastewater before discharging it to the canal. Following this example, the entire state of Illinois followed suit with the formation of sanitary districts in the 1920s to lead the nation in providing sewage treatment for most of its larger cities.
During and after World War II, virtually untreated industrial wastes discharged into Lake Erie at Cleveland nearly destroyed the lake’s fisheries, and conditions got so bad along the Cuyahoga River, where much of Cleveland’s industries were located, that the river actually caught fire.
Until the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the regulation of water pollution was left up to each state. This resulted in industries migrating to states with the laxest regulations, and left downstream states with no control of pollution being discharged into rivers flowing across their borders from their upstream neighbors.
Since 1950, tremendous progress has been made in protecting the nation’s waterways from municipal and industrial pollution, first in response to state regulations, but especially following the intercession of the U.S. EPA, which has the authority to issue discharge permits containing mandatory effluent standards for all effluent streams.
Today the greatest threats to the quality of our waterways (and consequently also to our drinking water) are discharges from the agricultural, and chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Agribusiness operations produce enormous quantities of harmful wastes. Massive chicken and egg operations, hog farms and cattle feedlots produce quantities of manure exceeding the amount of waste produced by major cities, and much of that waste ends up in our waterways. Also rainwater runoff from 1 million square miles of farmland washes millions of tons of fertilizer into our waterways. Agricultural pollution on such a massive scale causes algal blooms that create dead zones in the receiving waterways such as the Mississippi Delta, and Chesapeake Bay, from which formerly thriving crab, oyster and perch fisheries have nearly vanished. Agricultural wastes are poorly controlled because of the enormous power of the agribusiness lobby, and frequently overflow holding ponds that are suppose to contain them.
In the 1980s an attempt to impose controls on Maryland’s chicken and hog farms, which were (and still are) polluting Chesapeake Bay, was thwarted by the “get government off the back of business” mantra of the Reagan administration, in favor of a voluntary compliance program, which, predictably, was totally ineffective.
But far more insidious than the pollution coming from agricultural activities are the pollutants being produced by our chemical and pharmaceutical industries. These are a reason for serious concern because of the enormous variety of chemical substances entering the environment, the minuscule concentrations of many of these compounds (often measured in parts per billion) which can be harmful to all living organisms including humans, and the limited knowledge we have of their effects, alone or particularly in combination. And there is no “away” for these wastes either.
(To be continued in part two.)
Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday.
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