Region 1: EPA New England

A Brief Summary of the History of NPDES

The earliest federal action toward protecting the nation's water was the Refuse Act of 1899. The act outlawed the "dumping of refuse that would obstruct navigation of navigable waters, except under a federal permit." In the 1960's the language of this act was interpreted by the courts to cover any industrial waste. Two of the most famous examples of this legal interpretation can be found in the federal government's actions against two major companies: United States v. Republic Steel Corp., in 1960 and United States v. Standard Oil Co., in 1966. In the 1970's, the first attempts at creating a program to control industrial pollution were made using this act. This was the first time permits limiting discharges were used to control the dumping of waste.

In 1972 the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) was created in Section 402 of the Clean Water Act. "NPDES prohibits [discharges] of pollutants from any point source into the nation's waters except as allowed under an NPDES permit." The program gives the EPA the authority to regulate discharges into the nation's waters by setting limits on the effluent that can be introduced into a body of water from an operating and permitted facility.

The program became more complex in 1977 when Congress amended the Clean Water Act to enhance the NPDES program. The amendment "shifted the focus from controlling conventional pollutants to controlling toxic discharges." In 1987 Congress also passed the Water Quality Act which called for increased monitoring and assessing of water bodies to ensure that water quality standards were not just on paper, but were actually being realized in the nation's waters.