BOSTON—The National Environmental Law Center has been a longtime advocate for rivers across the United States.

On March 14 we celebrated the 26th anniversary of the International Day of Action for Rivers, a holiday dedicated to the necessity of clean and thriving river ecosystems, and to the belief that everyone has the right and responsibility to preserve and enjoy rivers. In celebration, we are reflecting on our thirty-year history of enforcing the Clean Water Act to protect our country’s rivers.

1992: NELC attorneys secured a $700,000 penalty against ICI Americas, then a subsidiary of one of the world’s largest chemical companies, for persistent discharges of highly toxic wastewater to Muddy Cove Brook, a small tributary of the Taunton River in Dighton, Massachusetts. The company’s chemical and dye-making wastewater was so toxic that it once melted the plastic boots of an EPA inspector who waded into the brook, and the discharge sometimes colored the Taunton River red as it made its way to the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to requiring the company to devise and implement a toxics use reduction plan to bring its discharge within permitted limits, the judicial consent decree specified that $600,000 of the court-ordered penalty be used for projects to improve water quality in the Taunton River.

1998: An NELC settlement with Dow Chemical in Midland, Michigan, helped protect two historic midwestern rivers. As part of the settlement, Dow removed dioxin-contaminated wastes from its wastewater treatment ponds adjacent to the Tittabawassee River, thus reducing the very real risk of overflow and contamination. The company was also required to improve its wastewater system in order to end illegal phosphorus discharges into the Tittabawassee, where the nutrient had flowed downstream into the Saginaw River and into Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, contributing to acres of algal “muck” near the shoreline. Finally, the settlement directed $1.8 million to a watershed protection and enhancement fund that continues to support environmental protection projects to this day.

2007: A consent decree resolved a five-year NELC lawsuit against the Pacific Seafood Group, one of the country’s largest seafood companies, over discharges of biological wastes into Oregon’s Skipanon River, a small tributary of the Lower Columbia River. The discharges came from two contiguous facilities, one a conventional seafood processing plant and the other a highly technological manufacturer of surimi, a “paste” made from bottom fish that is used to make processed seafood products such as imitation crab and shrimp. The combined effect of these discharges literally removed almost all the dissolved oxygen in the lower portion of the Skipanon, turning the area into something of an aquatic dead zone.

The settlement required Pacific Seafood to permanently cease its discharges to the Skipanon, and to instead pipe it into the deepest part of the wide Columbia River, releasing it only via a long “diffuser” that dilutes the organic wastes and prevents them from affecting dissolved oxygen. In addition, Pacific Seafood was required to pay a $200,000 penalty to fund environmental enhancement and preservation projects in the Skipanon River watershed.

2018: In 2017, NELC attorneys filed suit against Pilgrim’s Pride, the world’s second-largest chicken producer, for repeated wastewater violations at its poultry processing plant in Live Oak, Florida. The violations were contaminating the already compromised Suwannee River—which runs through north central Florida to the Gulf of Mexico—with toxic chemicals, nutrients and other pollutants. A 2018 consent decree required the company to conduct extensive testing of the facility’s discharge and bring an end to the violations, and to pay $1.3 million of the court-ordered penalty to the Sustainable Farming Fund managed by the Institute for Water and Environmental Resilience at Stetson University. Since the settlement, the Sustainable Farming Fund has awarded 28 grants designed to help farms located on nearby waterways to mitigate their “nutrient footprint.”

2023: Our devotion to rivers continues today. A 2022 NELC suit seeks to protect Rhode Island’s Pawtucket River—which has been formally listed as a Wild and Scenic River—from copper and other high-toxicity discharges by textile manufacturer Kenyon Industries of Kenyon, RI. NELC attorneys, together with our wastewater engineer, are now working with the company to improve the design and operation of the facility’s wastewater treatment system, which should greatly reduce the impact of the discharges on the river.

NELC is proud to embody the mission of the International Day of Action for Rivers, and we look forward to continuing this work for decades to come.