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Why the Government Can't Clean Fish

Main source of mercury pollution is... Us

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Both the EPA and FDA have now issued warnings about eating fish with high levels of mercury. Why can't the federal government, with all its power and tax-payer money prevent the pollution of our waterways and the oceans they fill? Because the main source of this pollution is not Big Industry, it is us.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) of 1972 controls pollutant discharge from what the EPA calls "point sources," like industrial and municipal facilities, into any navigable waters of the United States. Point sources are required to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, which requires compliance with technology- and water quality-based treatment standards. These polluters -- mercury from Company A or untreated sewage from City B -- are east to identify and fall easily under the enforcement powers of the EPA. However, waterway pollution from what EPA calls "nonpoint" sources (NPS) are far harder to control.

What are nonpoint sources of pollution?

Nonpoint pollution comes mainly from our own backyards. NPS pollution is caused by rainfall, snowmelt or irrigation moving over and through the ground. As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and even our underground sources of drinking water. These pollutants include:

  • Oil, grease, and toxic chemicals from urban runoff and energy production

  • Sediment from improperly managed construction sites, crop and forest lands, and eroding streambanks

  • Salt from irrigation practices and acid drainage from abandoned mines

  • Bacteria and nutrients from livestock, pet wastes, and faulty septicsystems

    According to the EPA, nonpoint source pollution is the leading remaining cause of water quality problems. Nonpoint pollution is known to have harmful effects on drinking water, wildlife and -- as we are now learning -- our sport and seafood fisheries.

    Clearly, as urbanization continues, the effects of nonpoint pollution will only worsen unless we all participate in efforts to reduce or prevent the problem.

    What can be done?

    Some activities aimed at preventing nonpoint pollution are federal responsibilities, such as ensuring that federal lands are properly managed to reduce soil erosion. Some are state responsibilities, for example, developing legislation to govern mining and logging, and to protect groundwater. Others are best handled locally, such as by zoning or erosion control ordinances. And each individual can play an important role by practicing conservation and by changing certain everyday habits.

    What can private citizens do?

    According to the EPA, the best ways private citizens can help reduce the effects of nonpoint water pollution are:

  • Keep litter, pet wastes, leaves, and debris out of street gutters and storm drains--these outlets drain directly to lake, streams, rivers, and wetlands.

  • Apply lawn and garden chemicals sparingly and according to directions.

  • Dispose of used oil, antifreeze, paints, and other household chemicals properly, not in storm sewers or drains. If your community does not already have a program for collecting household hazardous wastes, ask your local government to establish one.

  • Clean up spilled brake fluid, oil, grease, and antifreeze. Do not hose them into the street where they can eventually reach local streams and lakes.

  • Control soil erosion on your property by planting ground cover and stabilizing erosion-prone areas.

  • Encourage local government officials to develop construction erosion/sediment control ordinances in your community.

  • Have your septic system inspected and pumped, at a minimum, every 3-5 years so that it operates properly.

  • Purchase household detergents and cleaners that are low in phosphorous to reduce the amount of nutrients discharged into our lakes, streams and coastal waters.

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