On March 25, 2014, the oil company BP reported a malfunction at its refinery in Whiting, Ind., only a few miles away from the city of Chicago. For as much as four and a half hours, crude oil spilled into Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for seven million people in the greater Chicago area.
Luckily, that story had a happy ending — no oil was spotted moving toward a water intake crib for the city, located about 8 miles away from the spill's location, and cleanup efforts were concluded about a week and a half later with no believed additional effects on wildlife.
Still, more than 1,600 gallons of oil were ultimately believed to have leaked out of the refinery and into Lake Michigan. What if things had been worse?
So when I hear people say that the EPA's new Clean Water Rule is a burden on the economy, I can't help but wonder what they're talking about. Water is more than something we all rely on for life — it's something our businesses rely on too.
Now Congress is considering a bill, the Federal Water Quality Protection Act, which would not only fail to protect water quality but actually put economic growth at risk. Sen. Durbin has been a consistent advocate for clean water. We need Sen. Kirk to join him and help vote this bill down.
One thing most everyone can agree on is that our clean water rules need to be clarified. Since a pair of Supreme Court rulings in the last 15 years threw the EPA's jurisdiction into question, industrial and agricultural businesses, members of Congress, state and local officials, and environmental groups have been asking for clarification. What the EPA's rule would do is clarify, not expand, the waterways they can protect — specifically, seasonal or rain-dependent streams. Some have claimed that agriculture would be burdened; in fact, the rule would not only protect agricultural exemptions, it would actually expand them.
Still, it might seem odd to have businesses going to the mat for government regulation — until you think about how important water is to us. Businesses need clean water to operate, whether for irrigation, production, tourism or so many other sectors. For sectors like agriculture, tourism or even high-tech manufacturing, water is a basic input into their products. As with any other input, if its quality is diminished, the end product will be too. That's assuming, as with the Elk River spill in West Virginia last year, that a spill doesn't essentially shut down the entire local economy for days — to the tune of $19 million in losses a day. Just imagine the losses if that happened in a metropolis like Chicago.
There's another side to this: Dirty water represents an added cost to everyone who has to pay for cleaning it up. Many times, that can mean more taxes, and no business wants to have to pay a higher bill if they can avoid it. So why wouldn't they support something that would help protect this important resource?
It turns out they do. Polling commissioned last year by the American Sustainable Business Council found that 80 percent of small-business owners supported the rule, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and independents. And when asked whether they thought clean water protections were good or bad for the economy, 71 percent said they were crucial for economic growth. How many said they were bad for the economy? Six percent.
We got lucky with BP's spill. But businesses can't be asked to simply rely on luck. They need strong protections to ensure that this resource is protected and available for them to use. The EPA's Clean Water Rule will help do that. We need senators Durbin and Kirk to let the agency work, not tie their hands.
Note: On November 3, 2015, the Federal Water Quality Protection Act legislation was put on hold, but these things are like zombies -- it could come back from the dead.