In 1990, Congress reacted to the Exxon Valdez spill of 11 million gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska by passing the Oil Pollution Act, which built on two decades of Clean Water Act success. The Clean Water Act essentially stopped companies and communities from using rivers and lakes as open sewers for toxic waste and sewage. The Oil Pollution Act required that oil tankers use double-hull technology to prevent future spills of the magnitude of Exxon Valdez, and it set in motion an effort to address another thorny problem: Leaky underground oil and gas tanks all over the United States.
These underground tanks are responsible for water pollution that fouls countless wells that supply people across the country with drinking water. The program has helped test, replace and upgrade tanks -- but a reality of ground water pollution is that it can be even harder to clean up than an oil spill in the open ocean. The pollution will remain for decades. The unparalleled success of the Clean Water Act is today showing some signs of reversal.
While there will never be a return to the bad old days when toxic substances were openly dumped, the pollution fouling our waters today comes from multiple diffuse sources -- like runoff after rain that carries with it traces of oil and grease from roads and driveways, or pesticides from suburban lawns and gardens. This so-called "non-point source" pollution contributes as much pollution as the Exxon Valdez -- every month.
The good news -- and the bad -- is that we're all responsible for this pollution. So the little choices we make each day -- walking instead of driving and going organic instead of spraying pesticides, for instance -- make all the difference.
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