It's not the Bush tax cuts, the Wall Street bailouts, the credit crunch or those two off-the-books wars (remind me: why'd we invade Iraq again?). No, it's clean water. That's why America's in a recession.
Clean water is the reason so many citizens find it hard to put food on the table. But — praise Big Ag and Ayn Rand! — U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Winter Park, has come to save us from that crypto-communist, job-destroying Environmental Protection Agency and once again make America safe for the pollutigarchy.
He has pushed a bill through the House of Representatives that rips the guts out of the Clean Water Act and throws the bloody entrails into the nearest lake. Without a permit.
HR 2018, the "Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011," which passed 239-184 last week, overturns 40 years of progress. It forbids the EPA to require that states meet minimum water quality standards.
If a state feels like dumping noisome chemicals or raw sewage into a river, everybody downstream is out of luck. The dredge-and-drain-happy Army Corps of Engineers (the people who build lousy levees in New Orleans and issue permits to tear up endangered sea grasses in Florida), will be able to do whatever they like without regard to frivolous concerns such as public health.
The nation can return to those heady days when capitalism reigned unfettered by bunny-hugging, water-testing, hippie-wuss socialism, and America was on one heavy toxic trip.
The Clean Water Act used to be a point of pride for Republicans. Before President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972, hog and chicken farmers could hurl as much critter waste as they liked into Chesapeake Bay, never mind the dead shellfish. In 1970, around 30 percent of drinking water samples from around the country tested several times higher in chemical effluent than recommended for human consumption. The Hudson River teemed with carcinogenic PCBs, piped in courtesy of General Electric. Ohio's Cuyahoga River was so full of petrochemical waste it actually caught on fire.
As for Florida, it was polluter paradise. In 1969, Lake Thonotosassa in Hillsborough County scored the largest fish kill ever recorded — 26 million — thanks to laissez-faire chemical discharges from four food processing plants.
And remember Lake Apopka? Rep. Mica should: It's Florida's third-largest freshwater body and only a few miles west of his Winter Park home. From the 1940s on, it was a filthy unregulated soup of pesticide and animal poop, a stew of nitrates so deadly that in 1981 it was finally declared a Superfund site. Tower Chemical Co. saw fit to dispose of its excess DDE, an endocrine disruptor, in the lake, causing severe health disorders in local farmworkers, bird kills, sexual disorders and some very weird mutations in alligators.
You may be wondering why Mica wants to turn the clock back to when you could practically walk across Lake Apopka on dead bass and thick algae, back to when you smelled the Fenholloway River 10 miles before you saw it. Well, he's mad at EPA for having the temerity to try to regulate nutrients — fertilizer — in Florida waters. HR 2018's co-sponsor, Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, is mad at EPA because they're holding up permits to blow off the tops of mountains in his home state of West Virginia.
Seems a bunch of scientists have found out that when you blast the crown of a good-sized hill to get at the coal lurking in there, you end up choking streams and springs with noxious waste, killing off the aquatic life, ruining habitat and likely contributing to birth defects. Before the Clean Water Act, the drinking water hundreds of miles south in Alabama would get contaminated by coal waste. As a famous Floridian once pointed out, water will run downhill — and it doesn't stop at the state line.
Republicans (and a few Democrats in states where polluter sugar daddies such as the Koch Brothers cough up big campaign contributions) now refer to the EPA as a "job killer."
The expression is no doubt meant to trigger subconscious images of gray-faced psychos smiling as they strangle kittens or smother babies. This is a psychological disorder: "EPA Derangement Syndrome." It impairs the ability to reason, causing the victim to forget all his or her sixth-grade science.
In a floor speech last year, Montana congressman Denny Rehberg said ominously, "Every living person is now a source of pollution by exhaling CO2 and water vapor. Every breath you take, every word you utter, is now subject to EPA regulation."
Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann is convinced EPA is behind a conspiracy to force us to buy squiggly light bulbs. Not to be outdone, congressman Mica accuses EPA of conducting a "regulatory jihad."
Florida's Republican overlords and their Big Bidness handmaidens (or is it the other way around?) spout a lot of paranoid rubbish, especially whenever they see a TV camera.
Barney Bishop, head honcho of Associated Industries of Florida and polluter BFF, claims that EPA administrator Lisa Jackson "thinks she talks to God," while the citizens and lawyers who sued EPA in 2007 to make them enforce the law are "communist-inspired."
Bishop describes himself as a "lifelong Democrat," which would make sense if his life were lived in, say, the 1850s. He needs to read up on the current ideals of the Democratic Party (hint: they do not include poisoned water).
He and Rep. Mica might also work on their math: Implementing the modest numeric nutrient standards set out in the consent decree for Florida will not cost $700 a year per household.
That silly number comes from a couple of industry-funded studies that assume — incorrectly — that the EPA will require use of reverse osmosis to clean up our water. The real cost is less than $70 a year. But what are a few factoids between friends? As Bishop once lamented, "How clean does the water have to be, anyway?"
How clean, indeed. No matter what the pollutigarchy says, EPA has not acted dictatorially or hastily. After all, the states have known since 1998 they had to develop real, measurable standards.
EPA has also given the state extra time to get it together, even though there's green algal slime even now blanketing much of the St. Johns and Caloosahatchee rivers and nitrates cloud our once crystalline springs.
Mica's pet bill means to return us to the bad old days. While it will probably die in the Senate, it will no doubt resurface next year. And the year after.
If Republicans take the White House in 2012, we'll have to start boiling our drinking water. In the meantime, John Mica's constituents should ask him why he's willing to risk Florida's waters — essential to our tourist industry, essential to our very lives — back to a time when rivers burned and lakes stank of death.
Diane Roberts is author of Dream State, a historical memoir of Florida. She teaches at Florida State University.