Congress Amends the Water Pollution Control Act

The Water Pollution Control Act of 1956 amended the 1948 Water Pollution Control Act, increasing federal funds for pollution-control programs and water-treatment plants and strengthening federal powers to enforce anti-pollution policies.

Summary of Event

The U.S. Congress passed the amended Water Pollution Control Act on June 27, 1956, three days before the 1948 version of the act was due to expire, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed it into law on July 9, 1956. It was thought that the act would enable the nation to produce the huge quantities of clean, fresh water needed by the ever-increasing national population and its giant industrial complex. Pollution;legislation
Water Pollution Control Act (1956)
Water Pollution Control Act (1948)
Environmental policy, U.S.;water
[kw]Congress Amends the Water Pollution Control Act (June 27, 1956)
[kw]Water Pollution Control Act, Congress Amends the (June 27, 1956)
[kw]Pollution Control Act, Congress Amends the Water (June 27, 1956)
[kw]Act, Congress Amends the Water Pollution Control (June 27, 1956)
Water Pollution Control Act (1956)
Water Pollution Control Act (1948)
Environmental policy, U.S.;water
[g]North America;June 27, 1956: Congress Amends the Water Pollution Control Act[05210]
[g]United States;June 27, 1956: Congress Amends the Water Pollution Control Act[05210]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 27, 1956: Congress Amends the Water Pollution Control Act[05210]
[c]Environmental issues;June 27, 1956: Congress Amends the Water Pollution Control Act[05210]
Eisenhower, Dwight D.
[p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;environmental policy
Martin, Edward
McCallum, Gordon
Perkins, Roswell

Federal legislation concerning water-pollution control first began with the limited Rivers and Harbors Act Rivers and Harbors Act (1899) of 1899, which was administered by the secretary of the Army and which protected navigation by prohibiting discharge of most refuse into U.S. waters. That law was followed in 1912 by the first federal legislation on health-related aspects of water pollution, the Public Health Service Act Public Health Service Act (1912) ; this important act mandated the investigation of the relationship between water pollution and human health. In 1924, the Oil Pollution Act Oil Pollution Act (1924) , also administered by the secretary of the Army, attempted to diminish the discharge into U.S. waters of petroleum “that endangers ocean life, as well as our harbors and recreational facilities.”

These three acts defined the early federal role in exploring problems associated with the regulation of water quality. Over the years, the federal government acquired strong regulatory and enforcement powers, beginning with the five-year Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, which was extended until 1956 (Public Laws 80-845 and 82-579) and then in 1956 replaced with Public Law 84-660. The responsibility of administering Public Law 84-660 was vested in the surgeon general of the Public Health Service Public Health Service, U.S. , who was under the supervision and direction of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, U.S.;pollution (HEW).

Public Law 84-660 addressed some of the shortcomings of the 1948 act. The new law eliminated a provision in the 1948 act that allowed states to override federal authority in certain cases. In addition, the 1956 legislation addressed the fact that funds authorized by the earlier act for the construction of water-treatment plants had not been made available as expected.

Governmental efforts to deal with water pollution have focused mainly on visible natural bodies of water such as rivers and lakes, where pollutants include myriad substances found in farm runoff, municipal sewage, and industrial effluents. These substances include inorganic chemicals such as salts and agricultural fertilizers, organic chemicals dumped in the course of food processing, insecticides and other pesticides, by-products vented in chemical company effluents, and radioisotopes.

The provisions of Public Law 84-660 included the authorization of $500 million in matching funds over ten years for the construction of community water-treatment facilities. Funding was limited to $250,000 or 30 percent of the total cost of a project (whichever was less), and half of all funds was allocated for communities with populations of 125,000 or fewer. Some funds were allocated for research on water pollution, its treatment, and its control, to be carried out at universities and other nongovernmental agencies.

The surgeon general was made responsible for overseeing state preparations of comprehensive water-pollution control programs and research projects. It was hoped that more uniform laws concerning the prevention, handling, and control of water pollution would result. The federal government planned to spend $3 million annually between 1957 and 1961 for state aid, with allocations made on the basis of state population, the extent of the pollution observed, and the extent of the need envisioned. The federal contributions were not to exceed two-thirds of the total costs for any program, and all projects needed the approval of the surgeon general.

The act also established a nine-member Water Pollution Control Board Water Pollution Control Board, U.S. , to be named by the president, and specified procedures for the surgeon general to initiate antipollution measures in states where pollution was occurring. If, after a conference called by the surgeon general, a state did not within six months comply with recommendations for cleanup, the secretary of health, education, and welfare was authorized to call a public hearing and issue further recommendations. The state would then be given a further six months in which to take action; if it did not do so, the U.S. attorney general could override the state and initiate a federal suit.

A major reason for the Water Pollution Control Act was the ever-growing demand for fresh, clean water, a demand that required the cleanup of interstate waters at as many points as possible. In 1955, the Public Health Service observed that since 1935 the amount of dumped municipal waste had risen by 10 percent and that of industrial waste had almost doubled. In 1956, the service estimated that municipalities and industry would each need to spend $500 million or more annually for ten years to maintain an adequate supply of clean water. It was further estimated that municipal expenditure would be nearly equally divided among replacing worn-out water-treatment facilities, meeting increasing water demands, and completing construction of new water-treatment plants. Such a forecast made the need for the new Water Pollution Control Act clear.


The two main sources of water pollution in the United States are industry and municipalities. The development and passage of the Water Pollution Control Act of 1956 helped reduce both types of pollution. A problem associated with the act was that its main enforcement tools—the conferences called by the surgeon general—relied heavily, like those of the preceding law, upon negotiated agreements, state agency pressures, and the force of local public opinion. On the other hand, the “reasonable” time period for a state’s compliance had been codified not to exceed six months.

The responses to the Water Pollution Control Act ranged from appreciation, as expressed by the American Municipal Association, which believed that extensive federal aid was essential in solving the water-pollution problem, to disappointment that the federal government was not doing enough and that the law’s provisions were too limited. Industrial organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers National Association of Manufacturers, U.S. , which argued that state and local controls were sufficient to deal with pollution problems, strongly disliked the idea of strengthened federal control. The manufacturers’ association asserted that it was inappropriate for state and local funds to be enhanced by federal contributions. Business interests therefore generally opposed federal controls, proposing that more would be accomplished by cooperation than by compulsion.

Between 1956 and 1965, water pollution continued to be a serious problem. In part, this was because many municipalities and industrial corporations failed to comply with the law in their handling of wastes. State and federal action under the Water Pollution Control Act of 1956 was not tough enough, and this action was limited to interstate waters. The Public Health Service, too, reacted slowly and leniently, initiating action on only seven of 125 interstate rivers that had been reported to be polluted. As a result, various private and public interest groups believed that further legislative action was needed for effective intervention. From 1965 on, a number of water quality acts were passed to strengthen protection of U.S. water resources and establish a national policy for the prevention, control, and abatement of water pollution. Stronger policies for enforcement of federal decisions were also eventually developed.

Yet to come was realization by corporate executives that informed public opinion could make or break their companies. In light of the general public’s relative ignorance of environmental issues in the 1950’s, there was substantial resistance to water cleanup by many companies. Not all industry was insensitive to the issue, however; in fact, many companies rallied sensibly to demands for pollution cleanup. Nevertheless, more complete compliance would later be found to require greatly enhanced federal enforcement, the creation of a much sterner control agency than the Public Health Service, and the development of a concerned and well-informed public. Pollution;legislation
Water Pollution Control Act (1956)
Water Pollution Control Act (1948)
Environmental policy, U.S.;water

Further Reading

  • “Billions to Clean Up the Rivers.” BusinessWeek, April 24, 1965, 50-58. Useful article that lists all the U.S. rivers in need of cleanup. Also discusses water-quality standards and their ramifications, enforcement, aid, and incentives. Points out some of the shortcomings of Public Law 84-660 nine years after it went into effect.
  • Farb, Peter. “Let’s Clean Up All Our Polluted Rivers.” Reader’s Digest, October, 1957, 133-137. Interesting article that describes the cleanup of the Raritan Valley in New Jersey, as well as more general aspects of Public Law 84-660.
  • Gross, Joel, and Lynn Dodge. Clean Water Act. Chicago: Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources, American Bar Association, 2005. An executive summary and legislative and judicial history of the Clean Water Act, including its effects, enforcement, application, and subsequent amendments. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Miller, G. Tyler, Jr., and David G. Lygre. Chemistry: A Contemporary Approach. 3d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1991. Contains a helpful discussion of water pollution, pollutants and their consequences, and water cleanup. Illustrated.
  • “New Weapons Against Pollution.” BusinessWeek, August 13, 1955, 136-137. This article, which appeared before the passage of the Water Pollution Control Act of 1956, discusses pollution problems and the need to clean up rivers as well as the need for pollution scientists and water-quality standards. Provides a brief overview of water pollution.
  • Stein, Murray. “Legislation on Water Pollution Control.” Public Health Reports 79 (August 8, 1964): 699-706. Overview of the history of water-pollution legislation up to 1961 and the plans associated with the proposed Clean Water Act of 1965.

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