U.S. Congress Updates Water Pollution Law

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 demonstrated the willingness of the U.S. Congress to continue to expand protection of the national water supply.

Summary of Event

Water-quality standards were initially established to control waterborne diseases, such as typhoid fever and cholera, and contamination of public water resulting from the careless use of chemicals and the heedless disposal of wastes. To combat these problems, early water-quality acts focused on the need to help local governments build water-treatment plants to filter out some pollutants and chemically neutralize others. The laws also allowed the federal government to take action against companies and local governments whose wastewater adversely affected other areas. Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments (1972)
[kw]U.S. Congress Updates Water Pollution Law (Mar. 1, 1972)
[kw]Congress Updates Water Pollution Law, U.S. (Mar. 1, 1972)
[kw]Water Pollution Law, U.S. Congress Updates (Mar. 1, 1972)
[kw]Pollution Law, U.S. Congress Updates Water (Mar. 1, 1972)
[kw]Law, U.S. Congress Updates Water Pollution (Mar. 1, 1972)
Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments (1972)
[g]North America;Mar. 1, 1972: U.S. Congress Updates Water Pollution Law[00590]
[g]United States;Mar. 1, 1972: U.S. Congress Updates Water Pollution Law[00590]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 1, 1972: U.S. Congress Updates Water Pollution Law[00590]
[c]Environmental issues;Mar. 1, 1972: U.S. Congress Updates Water Pollution Law[00590]
Nixon, Richard M.
[p]Nixon, Richard M.;environmental policy
Ruckelshaus, William D.

The Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, Water Pollution Control Act (1948) which was first amended in 1956, Water Pollution Control Act Amendments (1956) was implemented to protect public health and welfare and to improve the quality of the nation’s water. The act increased the amount of federal money allocated to local governments to build water-treatment plants, and during the 1960’s and 1970’s, many new sewer systems were funded by the federal government. The states had the primary responsibility for setting water-quality standards, which had to be approved by the federal Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The state standards could be stricter than those of the EPA; conversely, the EPA could set a state’s standards if they were not consistent with the act.

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments (FWPCAA) of 1972 were passed to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.” The amendments focused mainly on the control of surface water and the pollutants dumped therein, but they also included provisions to halt local development in wetlands. The amendments, which were signed into law on March 1, 1972, had three declared aims: to eliminate pollutant discharge by 1985; to restore water quality to the point that would enable safe fishing, swimming, and recreation by 1983; and to ensure that toxic pollutants were no longer dumped in large amounts. The amendments set limits for pollutants from a single source and standards for overall water quality, as well as inaugurating pollution records through National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits.

The 1972 amendments had five principal provisions that covered research and demonstration projects; grants for sewage-treatment plants; processes for implementing standards, inspections, and enforcement; establishment of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System ; and judicial terms and actions.

The most effective provision of the 1972 law was the establishment of NPDES permits for dumping effluents into the water supply; dumping of pollutants without a permit was prohibited altogether. The permits, which were administered by state environmental agencies and intended for direct point-source dischargers only, limited the amounts of pollutant to be dumped and enforced terms and conditions depending on the type of pollutant and the measures needed to restore water quality according to FWPCAA standards.

The NPDES permit process unfortunately had a significant loophole that allowed relaxed restrictions on renewed or modified permits. The relaxed standard went into effect if, for example, a plant’s design changed or even simply if a polluter was unable to meet the original standard. A company could also seek a variance in the NPDES permits by arguing that potential cleanup costs would be too high.

The 1972 law defined several important concepts. The first was that a single source of pollution, also called a point source, is a specific and confined object that dumps pollutants into a stream or river; a point source could be a pipe, ditch, feedlot, boat, landfill, or other specific source. The second definition was that pollutants are any change in the water quality brought about by humans, whether harmful or not. Pollutants could be soil, sewage, garbage, chemicals, wrecked equipment, rock, sand, or even heat. Sewage and oil from ships were not included, nor were the chemicals injected into oil and gas wells to help the production process, or water from oil and gas production that was legally disposed of in wells.

Discharged pollutants were defined as one of two types of effluent: those dumped directly into streams and rivers and those dumped into publicly owned treatment plants. The amendment established national standards for effluents considered unsuitable for normal treatment at water plants.

The 1972 amendments awarded grants to statewide waste-treatment and water-quality management plans. These grants ended in 1990, but new upgrading programs were started in 1989 in which local governments received loans for the construction of publicly owned treatment plants. The loans could also be used to control urban and agricultural runoff and to protect estuaries. Public water-treatment plants were required to meet secondary treatment levels of effluent by mid-1977; an extension of one year was possible if the plants were still under construction or if no federal money had been used for the treatment plant.

After the end of 1981, no further permits were issued for dumping sludge into the ocean. Public treatment plants could, however, get a variance from the regulation and dump sludge if the materials did not interfere with water-quality standards. The EPA had begun to set national standards for industrial-effluent discharges, but it had done so without considering the quality of the water that received the discharge. During one of its periods of understaffing, the EPA also failed to regulate industrial discharge according to type of industry.

Effluent discharge was regulated nationwide in one of two ways. The less restrictive method, usually for the removal of conventional pollutants, was through the “best practicable technology,” or BPT. The standard set for BPT was the average of the best technology in use at the time the law took effect. Before mid-1977, all effluents, except those from publicly owned water-treatment plants, had to be treated with that technology before being dumped. The more restrictive method was to remove toxic and nonconventional pollutants from wastewater using the “best available technology,” or BAT. BAT standards were designed to raise the level of pollutant removal using the best current technology, and after 1983, BAT was the standard for all pollutant removal.


Passage of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 marked a turning point for increased federal involvement in national water-quality protection. The act was succeeded and strengthened by amendments in later years as well as by a related 1974 law that targeted drinking water. The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act (1974) established standards for drinking water from any source that served more than twenty-five people or had more than fifteen connections to one water source. The drinking-water standards also limit the injection of chemicals into groundwater sources. It was possible for local governments to request a variance to the Safe Drinking Water Act on the grounds that a listed contaminant in the water did not pose a health risk, the water required no treatment, the city was using alternative treatment techniques with equally good results, or the city was unable to pay the costs. The EPA set up regulations for the entire nation, but the individual states developed their own plans for implementing and enforcing the regulations. They were also required to protect aquifers and the area around wells.

Because of the EPA’s cumbersome process of implementation, most of the Safe Drinking Water Act’s new standards for contaminants did not become effective until after the passage of amendments in 1986 that streamlined the process of implementation. The strengthened law also required that all chemicals known or expected to occur in drinking water be listed and that the water-treatment methods employed be the best affordable technology. Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments (1972)

Further Reading

  • Bonine, John E., and Thomas O. McGarity. The Law of Environmental Protection: Cases-Legislation-Policies. 2d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West, 1993. A textbook of modern environmental law, beginning with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.
  • Craig, Robin Kundis. The Clean Water Act and the Constitution: Legal Structure and the Public’s Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment. Washington, D.C.: Environmental Law Institute, 2004. Serves as an inquiry into environmental “rights” under the U.S. Constitution.
  • Freeman, Warren. Federal Statutes on Environmental Protection: Regulation in the Public Interest. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 1987. A comprehensive review of federal laws and significant court cases that affect the environment.
  • Ortolano, Leonard. Environmental Planning and Decision Making. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1984. A thorough guide to multidisciplinary efforts in environmental planning.
  • Tabb, William Murray, and Linda A. Malone. Environmental Law: Cases and Materials. 2d ed. Charlottesville, Va.: Lexis Law, 1997. An environmental-law casebook that focuses on the mainstream approach to environmental protection.

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