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How does the EPA enforce the Clean Water Act, and how can I help?

The federal Clean Water Act is an important law which establishes the standards that must be followed in discharging pollutants into bodies of water, as well as the standards regulating surface water quality. The federal agency charged with enforcing the Clean Water Act is the Environmental Protection Agency, and the agency has put into place various pollution control programs and established water quality standards for surface water contaminants.

When persons or entities fail to abide by their duties under the Clean Water Act, the EPA is responsible for stepping in and addressing those violations. The manner of enforcement can be either civil or criminal in nature. In civil administrative enforcement, the approach is to bring the offending party into compliance with the law, either by a notice of violation or an order that the individual or entity come into compliance with the law or clean up a site that has been polluted (or pay for cleanup already performed). 

Penalties, settlements, injunctive relief and environmental improvement projects may or may not be associated with a civil action, depending on the case. When civil enforcement involves formal litigation, either the Department of Justice of a state Attorney General will get involved, depending on whether or not the violation is regulatory in nature. Criminal actions may be pursued in cases of serious violations, in which case criminal penalties may be imposed, including incarceration for individual defendants.

Having briefly explored the tools of enforcement, we’ll look in our next post at how individual citizens can help in the enforcement of the Clean Water Act.

Source:  Environmental Protection Agency, “Enforcement Basic Information,” Accessed Jan. 21, 2015. 

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