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Hidden agenda 

Your water bill pays lobbyists who want to gut the Clean Water Act

If you had to guess who was financing a national push to annihilate key parts of the Clean Water Act and allow raw sewage and industrial waste to be dumped into Mecklenburg County's creeks and streams, you'd probably guess Big Business.

You'd be wrong. An investigation by Creative Loafing has revealed that much of the funding behind the federal battle to rip down parts of the 30-year-old law is coming from public wastewater treatment facilities like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities.

As for who's paying for it, well, that would be you, the public. Every time the residents of Charlotte-Mecklenburg pay their utility bills, they're supporting a powerful special interest group which lobbies Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to allow utilities to release more raw and partially treated human sewage into our creeks and streams without liability for any environmental or public health damage that could cause.

Over the last six years, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities (CMU) has paid at least $60,000 in membership dues to the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies (AMSA). The money came from the water and sewer rates and fees paid by CMU customers.

On its website, AMSA claims to promote clean water. What the website doesn't mention is that it exclusively represents the interests of over 350 private and public sewer utilities across the country. Nor does it note that those "interests" can directly clash with the health and public safety interests of those who pay for CMU's AMSA membership -- namely, folks who pay their water bill, including those who live along creeks and streams that can carry millions of gallons of raw human sewage after large spills.

For years, AMSA has been fighting on the legal, regulatory and political fronts to weaken or nullify two of the linchpins of the 30-year-old Clean Water Act -- that raw sewage cannot be allowed to escape into the environment without a permit, and that all sewage must be treated to secondary standards before it can safely be released back into the environment. The Clean Water Act has been widely credited with making thousands of once highly polluted American waters safe for swimming and human contact.

CMU higher-ups don't appear to be concerned about using the public's money to back AMSA's political agenda. They say they don't see it as a conflict of interest for CMU to use public funds to maintain a membership in a politically active lobbying organization, one of whose goals is less regulation for utilities like CMU. "We do not feel it necessary for our agency to officially 'agree or disagree' with every specific position that AMSA takes," CMU spokesperson Vic Simpson said.

CMU also says it doesn't consider AMSA's primary role to be that of a political lobbying organization. "Our primary benefit from being an AMSA member is having access to information and science-based research," said Simpson via email. "With that said, Charlotte-Mecklenburg is fully aware and supportive of AMSA's role in the legislative process."

Limits on water pollution aren't all AMSA's been fighting. According to a private section of AMSA's website CMU allowed CL to view, AMSA is also fighting to exempt its members from a proposed rule that requires compliance with carbon monoxide emission limits and constant monitoring of carbon monoxide emissions from boilers and heaters. It also successfully fought against water pollution controls for the metal products and machinery industry.

But the list of things environmental and public health proponents have to say about AMSA aren't all bad. Most applaud AMSA's extensive efforts to secure hundreds of millions, and ultimately billions, in Congressional funding for improvements to the nation's sanitary sewer systems that both sides argue need to be made to help stop sewer spills.

At the same time, others, like Nancy Stoner of the Natural Resources Defense Council, say AMSA's positions on raw sewage are internally inconsistent.

"AMSA says that we should have a trust fund and have the federal government invest in sewage treatment, just as I say, but they also say that sewage in the water is no big deal," said Stoner. "They minimize the significance of having untreated and partially treated sewage in the water, meanwhile they're asking for money from US taxpayers that they say they need to address the problem."

No one doubts that AMSA does indeed do a good job of educating its members about new technology, regulations and trends, and many people certainly applaud their advocacy for improving the nation's sewer infrastructure. But it's equally certain that AMSA has been a loud voice -- often the loudest voice -- at the forefront of nearly every clean water debate dealing with sewage regulation for the last three decades.

Lobbying For Less ResponsibilitySo what are the people of Charlotte-Mecklenburg getting in exchange for the money CMU sends to AMSA every year? According to critics, more dirty water and the public health risks that come with it.

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