The Federal Role in Secondary Treatment Before the Clean Water

The public's concern about raw sewage in the nation's waterways was not entirely lost on the U.S. Congress before the turn of the twentieth century. Because of the U.S. Constitution, however, they felt powerless to act on any water resource issue unless it dealt in some way with interstate commerce. Accordingly, the first federal legislation dealing with the abatement of water pollution was tied to the fact that pollution sometimes got so bad that it impeded navigation. The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1890 specifically prohibited the discharge of any refuse or filth that would impede navigation in interstate waters. Unfortunately, this act was greatly "watered down" with the passage of the amended Rivers and Harbors Act in 1899. It conveniently exempted "refuse flowing from streets and sewers and passing therefrom in a liquid state" from the navigation impedance prohibition. After the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, the Public Health Service Act of 1912 authorized the federal government to investigate waterborne disease and water pollution. In 1924, the Oil Pollution Act was enacted to control discharges of oil causing damage to coastal waters.

The next few decades were lean ones in terms of federal involvement in water pollution control—but not for lack of effort. Between 1899 and 1948, more than 100 bills about water pollution were introduced. Most languished and died in the halls of Congress. One, sponsored by Senator Alben W. Barkley (later Vice President for Harry S. Truman) and Representative Fred M. Vinson (later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), actually made it to President Roosevelt's desk. The bill, however, received a presidential veto in 1938 because of budgetary concerns. The 80th Congress finally broke the impasse and enacted the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. This act, along with five amendments passed between 1956 and 1970, shaped the national vision and defined the federal role regarding the treatment of wastewater in the United States. It also set the stage for passage of the landmark Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972. Figure 2-4 summarizes the key legislation enacted between 1948 and 1971.

The Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, PL 80-845 The Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was significant on three accounts. For the first time Congress accomplished the following:

• Expressed a national interest in abating water pollution for the benefit of both water supply and water resource customers.

The pollution of our water resources by domestic and industrial wastes has become an increasingly serious problem due to the rapid growth of our cities and industries. Large and increasing amounts of varied wastes must be disposed of from these concentrated areas. Polluted waters menace the public health through the contamination of water and food supplies, destroy fish and game life, and rob us of other benefits of our natural resources.

—Senate Report No. 462 of the 80th Congress Report on the Water Pollution Control Act of 1948

• Established the view that states were primarily responsible for the control of water pollution and that the federal government's role would be to provide financial aid and technical assistance—a policy concept that has continued to the present.

That in connection with the exercise of jurisdiction over the waterways of the Nation and in consequence of the benefits resulting to the public health and welfare by the abatement of stream pollution, it is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress to recognize, preserve, and protect the primary responsibilities and rights of the States in controlling water pollution . . . and to provide . . . financial aid to State and interstate agencies and to municipalities, in the formulation and execution of their stream pollution programs.

—The Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 (PL 80-845)

Water Pollution Control Act of 1948

The Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 authorized the US Public Health Service to develop comprehensive basin plans for water pollution control and to encourage the adoption of uniform state laws. $100 million of loans annually to municipalities were authorized, but no appropriation for treatment facilities under this act was ever made. However, the act influenced the states to apply more control over the discharge of pollutants into their waters.

Water Pollution Control Act of 1961

Comprehensive programs and plans for water pollution abatement and control were still required. Grants were limited to 30% of the cost of construction or $600,000, whichever was less, or $2.4 million for multiple municipal plants. At least half of the appropriation was to go to cities of 125,000 or less. The Congress advocated 85% removal of pollutants in the hearings.

Clean Water Restoration Act of 1966

The requirements for state water quality standards were continued. Each state planning agency receiving a grant was to develop an effective, comprehensive pollution control plan for a basin. The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration, in a guideline, attempted to require states to conform to a national uniform standard of secondary treatment or its equivalent. This action was challenged and the guideline was not enforced. Secretary Udall stated at House hearings that the states had agreed to the requirement for secondary treatment. Grants for POTWs are set at 30% with an increase to 40% if the state paid 30%. The maximum could be increased to 50% if the state agreed to pay 25%. A grant could be increased by 10% if it conformed to a comprehensive plan for the metropolitan area. The limitation of $1.2 million and $4.8 million for grants was waived if the state matched equally all federal grants. At least 50% of the first $100 million in annual appropriations had to be directed to municipalities of <125,000 people.

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