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Environment and History

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Environment and History

Interstate Water Pollution Problems and Elusive Federal Water Pollution Policy in the United States, 1900-1948

Jouni Paavola

Environment and History 12(2006): 435-465

This article examines water pollution and its control in the United States from the turn of the twentieth century until after the Second World War, a period during which water pollution became an interstate problem. State water pollution control policies existed at the time. However, states were unwilling to control the pollution of state waters because of the threat of industrial flight, and the pollution of interstate waters because it would have mainly benefited downstream states. The states first sought to resolve their conflicts over the pollution of interstate waters by litigating in the Supreme Court of the United States, but it was not well-suited for managing the quality of interstate waters. Many organisations also lobbied for federal water pollution control legislation but the federal government only endorsed the use of interstate compacts to manage water quality in interstate waters. However, they were largely ineffective and did not address the threat of industrial flight which was an obstacle for water pollution control in state waters. Federal funding of water pollution control measures during the New Deal had more lasting impacts and became an element of federal water pollution legislation when it was finally enacted after the Second World War.

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