Protecting the Environment: A Continuing Effort
by Jane M. Kenny
EPA Regional Administrator Jane M. Kenny and New York City Commissioner of Parks Adrian Benape sift lake water with a New York City Student
We've all heard it before, but it's definitely worth repeating-water, precious water, covers about three-quarters of the Earth's surface. Whether it's saltwater or freshwater, it plays an essential and critical role in our lives. We are nourished by it, we sail and swim in it, and many of us derive a livelihood from it.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for managing the quality of the waterways that inhabit and surround our nation and its territories. Of particular interest are our coastal waters and beaches. In Region 2, which includes New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, we have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Protecting and ensuring their beauty, and the quality of the water that washes up on them, is continuous. While the EPA is chartered to protect our waterways, communities, institutions, and individuals are all necessary partners in the process.
Sand, saltwater, and waves are important to all of us. Americans take over 910 million trips to coastal beaches annually, generating billions of dollars in purchases associated with their visits. The coastal recreation and tourism industry is generally considered the largest employer in the United States and one of the largest contributors to the gross domestic product. The commercial fishing industry alone contributes about $45 billion to our economy, and recreational fishing accounts for another $30 billion.
Within Region 2, New Jersey has about 125 miles of white sand beach, and New York has a similar expanse of Atlantic Ocean coastline. Puerto Rico has more than 300 miles of coastline, and the three islands of the U.S. Virgin Islands-St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John-while much smaller, are desirable destinations especially for swimming, snorkeling, and sailing vacations.
Walking across one of the many beaches in our Region and letting the waves wash over your toes, it makes it hard to imagine that these beaches and bodies of water are in constant jeopardy. Yet they continue to be threatened by contamination. Too many of our waterways are still not clean enough for safe fishing or swimming. And, while we have been working at it for 30 some years, with a tremendous amount of cooperation from local authorities and individuals, we still have a lot to do.
It wasn't long ago that the rivers, streams, and oceans in our Region were all too convenient dumping grounds for garbage, sewage sludge, and heavily contaminated sediment dredged from the harbor. Very little thought was given to the long-term effects of disposing of waste in our waterways, and, in particular, the Atlantic Ocean. Convenience took precedence over concern for the environment.
Today, as a result of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act passed in 1972, and subsequent amendments and regulations, random ocean dumping has been halted. The EPA, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, plays a major role in ocean disposal, and the dredged materials that are used to cover the most contaminated areas are carefully evaluated to ensure they will not pose a risk to humans and the environment.
Other environmentally friendly legislation followed the Marine Protection Act, and the quality of our land, water, and air has improved dramatically. For example, it wasn't long ago that an oil slick on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was actually in flames. Today, the 100-mile urban river that Time magazine once said "oozes rather than flows" is getting cleaned up-swimmers can once again use its beaches and marine life is beginning to thrive.
We are also getting a handle on other pollutants, like lead gas and lead paint, which are no longer available for purchase. Factory smokestacks have been fitted with scrubbers to reduce airborne pollutants. Cities and towns no longer send untreated waste into our rivers and streams. We recycle aluminum cans and plastic bottles, newspapers and corrugated boxes. Automobile manufacturers are making and selling hybrids. The environment, as a result, is improving steadily.
Another law that has contributed greatly to water quality is the Clean Water Act, also enacted in 1972; it requires the treatment of municipal sewage and requires permits for any wastewater discharged into America's waterways. These permits limit the levels of pollution in a company's wastewater discharge, while requiring the company to control pollution levels, monitor the discharge, and report back to the EPA. If a company is determined to be noncompliant, the EPA can levy a substantial fine on the company.
EPA Region 2 beach surveillance helicopter, Coastal Crusader, gathering water samples for EPA's annal beach monitoring program
Despite the best intentions of regulations and regulators, the environment calls for constant care. Garbage is still washing up on our beaches; oil spills still occur. There are still advisories that recommend limits on eating fish for many parts of America's coastline. Our estuaries-where rivers and streams meet the oceans-are at risk for increased nutrients that can cause algal blooms and reduced oxygen levels, posing a very real threat to fish and other marine life.
The Beaches, Environmental Assessment, and Coastal Health (BEACH) Act of 2000 is another initiative that calls for an even greater commitment to protect the water quality of the nation's beaches and gives the EPA increased oversight responsibility for quality standards for beaches. The EPA is in the process of proposing updated standards for states to evaluate their coastal water for pathogens, harmful bacteria that can cause disease. The Clean Beaches Plan, an outgrowth of the BEACH Act, calls for grants to states for beach monitoring and notification programs, technical guidance, and scientific studies, as well as water quality standards.
While regulatory and clean-up functions form the core of our mission, the EPA also commits substantial resources to preventing pollution. We recognize that the best route to a sustainable environment takes a combination of elements including education, regulation, and enforcement. It takes something else as well-something much more critical. It takes commitment on the part of individuals-people who practice environmentally sound behavior because they realize that the world they live in is fragile, and it is they who are the guardians of a clean, safe environment.
Jane M. Kenny was appointed regional administrator of EPA Region 2 in December 2001. She oversees a Region that includes all of New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally funded Indian nations. The Region has played a key role in response and recovery after the World Trade Center disaster and has begun a program to clean up contamination on the Hudson River, the nation's second largest superfund site. Prior to joining the EPA, Kenny served as commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and chief of policy and planning in Governor Christie Whitman's administration, and as cabinet secretary for Governor Thomas Kean.