On-Going Environmental Degradation is No Joke

Industrial logging in the Washington Cascades. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

What will future generations and historians deduce when they look back at this turbulent period in world history and what the “leading nations” did or did not do to address the problems that are so serious they actually threaten the future of life as we know it on the planet? Given the increasingly complex and dire circumstances as we head into April, 2022, one thing seems all too clear – it’s no April Fools joke.

For instance, there’s nothing to laugh about in a study recently released by the Environmental Integrity Project on the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. The report, published by “former EPA enforcement attorneys to advocate for effective enforcement of environmental laws” found “alarming results of water quality tests in all 50 states. More than 700,000 miles of waterways, about 51 percent of assessed river and stream miles, are impaired by pollution. That’s in addition to another 55 percent of lake acres and 26 percent of estuary miles.” The term “impaired” identifies lakes, rivers and streams that are too polluted to even meet minimum standards “for swimming and recreation, aquatic life, fish consumption or as drinking water sources.”

While the statistics alone are shocking, what’s really worth questioning is the efficacy of laws that are often passed with great fanfare and promises of attaining goals that — as with the Clean Water Act — are never met. In truth, the minute the legislation is signed into law those who fall under the regulatory jurisdiction go to work weakening, obfuscating, and extending the science-based standards that would ensure sustainable clean water for the future.

Of course there are the industry lobbyists who had their fingerprints on the legislation before it even becomes law, a pinch here, an exemption there, and substituting “may” for “shall” throughout the bill.

But there are also those — like municipalities and local governments — who refuse to invest in the measures necessary to ensure clean water comes out the end of their sewage treatment plant pipes. They’ve kicked that can down the road for half a century, begging “variances” from meeting regulations. And even now, in Montana, local governments supported changing the numerical water quality standards to “narrative” standards so they could keep dumping nutrients in our already-overloaded waterways.

In a nation that drops more than $2 billion a day on the military, the excuse that “we can’t afford” to clean up our wastewater is ludicrous — and the subsequent impacts for present and future generations unavoidable, cumulative, and inexcusable.

Even worse is when government agencies ignore proven science due to political and corporate pressure — as in the current rush to log what’s left of our national forests to mitigate wildfires. A huge and growing body of scientific studies finds that thinning and logging are ineffective at halting large wildfires and may actually increase wildfires by removing shade, drying out the forest floor, and allowing more wind to drive the flames.

A study released last week found that “Forest Service lands are not the main source of wildfires affecting communities” and that more fires travel from private lands onto national forest lands than from national forests into communities. And again, it’s no joke chopping down our national forests to prevent wildfires when it actually destroys one of the planet’s most efficient methods of removing global warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

No, future generations may well look back and say “not only didn’t they do what was vitally necessary, they did the opposite and made things worse” – and you know, there’s nothing remotely funny about that.



George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.