By Robert P. Bomboy
I grew up in the Wyoming Valley of northeastern Pennsylvania, one of the world’s largest producers of anthracite coal. Until a disaster flooded the mines and permanently stopped work up and down the valley in the late 1950s, men deep underground dug out literally millions of tons of coal each year.
I have a sharp memory from a time before that happened, seeing an outpouring of black water — thousands of gallons a minute — from a coal mine that sat adjacent to the Susquehanna River. The black water from coal-washing poured into the river from an opening five feet square in the river wall, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, an unstoppable torrent, turning the river black and killing the shad and eels and everything else that had ever lived in the water.
Similar flows from hundreds of mines silted the Susquehanna’s bottom, causing life-stopping floods and making it the longest unnavigable river in America as it made its way downstream to the Chesapeake Bay.
When the mines stopped working and their owners went bankrupt, there was an opening for new rules, federal rules, putting a brake on industrial sources of water pollution and on sewage from thousands of households and businesses.
Donald Trump and his ruthless robber-baron administration, forgetting the bad old times that I remember — or not caring, in any case — has cut away nearly 95 environmental protections that, until now, were making our lives better and healthier than they were in the 1950s.
“President Trump’s administration wants to make our waters burn again,” says Janette Brimmer of Earthjustice, formerly called the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, referring to polluted waters that literally caught fire. “This all-out assault on basic safeguards will send our country back to the days when corporate polluters could dump whatever sludge or slime they wished into the streams and wetlands that often connect to the water we drink.”
The Trump administration repealed the Clean Water Rule and is now working to undo the landmark 1972 Clean Water Act. Since Trump came into office, his henchmen have forced the eviscerated Environmental Protection Agency to roll back literally dozens of environmental regulations: including limits on the use of pollutants near streams and wetlands; restrictions on toxic emissions from factories and industrial plants; and mercury emissions from power plants burning coal.
On Jan. 23, the EPA, whose work once stood in the vanguard of policies protecting us, undercut rules that guarded more than half the nation’s wetlands and hundreds of thousands of small waterways, including seasonal streams that flow only for part of the year and wetlands that aren’t next to large bodies of water.
As a result, farmers and property developers now can release pesticides, fertilizers, and other pollutants directly into many of those waterways and destroy or fill in wetlands for construction projects.
Be careful where you swim in the great outdoors, because, as in the 1950s, cities across the nation will no longer need to clean up raw sewage flowing into our rivers during emergencies. Trump is letting cities and other municipalities delay or otherwise save a buck by changing for the worse federally required improvements to their sewer systems.
Modern federal rules outlaw the release of raw sewage. But older cities across the Northeast and Midwest have outdated sewer systems designed to carry sewage and rainwater in the same pipes. When rain overwhelms those systems, untreated sewage is being released into local waterways. Trump couldn’t care less, and there are legions of lobbyists working against us. Climate change with its hurricanes and torrential storms has worsened the problem, causing sewage systems to overflow more often.
What Trump’s done has created the biggest loss of clean-water protections that America has ever seen. He has put drinking water for millions of us at risk of contamination from unregulated pollution. There was a time within living memory that our rivers were so polluted they could literally catch fire and burn. I pray that we will not see that time again, nor the torrents of black water that I remember.
Robert P. Bomboy has written for more than 60 national magazines and is the author of six books, including the novel “Smart Boys Swimming in the River Styx.” He taught for more than 30 years in colleges and universities, and he has been a Ford Foundation Fellow at the University of Chicago and in Washington, D.C.