The Corps' role in protecting the country's water resources has evolved over the last century. In the 1880s and 1890s, Congress directed the Corps to prevent dumping and filling in the nation's harbors, a program that was vigorously enforced by the engineers. At the port of Pittsburgh in 1892, for instance, the Corps took a grand jury on a boat tour of the harbor and obtained some 50 indictments of firms dumping debris into the harbor. In 1893 the Corps forced one Ohio community to build an incinerator and burn refuse rather than dump the garbage into the river where, the Corps insisted, it obstructed navigation.
In the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, Congress gave the Corps the authority to regulate most kinds of obstructions to navigation, including hazards resulting from effluents (under the so-called Refuse Act really Section 13 of the 1899 legislation). In 1910, the Corps used the act to object to a proposed sewer in New York City, but the judge ruled that pollution control was a matter left to the states alone. Generally, Corps officers were disappointed that they were not given police powers to deal with polluters. Many Corps employees lived on the waterways, and water quality was a personal as well as civic concern. In 1911, Brigadier General William H. Bixby, the chief of engineers, suggested to the National Rivers and Harbors Congress that modern treatment facilities and prohibitions on dumping "should either be made compulsory or at least encouraged everywhere in the United States." The Corps' own role grew marginally when the Oil Pollution Act of 1924 authorized the agency to apprehend those who discharged oil into tidal waters. With limited manpower and authority, the Corps enforced the statute poorly. By then, many Corps officers had accepted the view that pollution should generally be considered a state or local problem and that the Corps should be involved only when there was a clear threat to navigation. The Corps reported in 1926 that domestic sewage and industrial waste polluted most of the nation's rivers but did not seriously interfere with navigation. However, the agency conceded that pollution endangered fish in some areas.
Within its current regulatory program, the Corps of Engineers has authority over work on structures in navigable waterways under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899 and over the discharge of dredged or fill material under Section 404 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 (P.L. 92-500). This latter requirement applies to wetlands and other valuable aquatic areas throughout the United States. The Corps' current regulatory mission is a natural product of historical evolution, for the Corps has been exercising regulatory responsibilities for over a hundred years.
The creation of the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, first funded by a 1983 act, enlarged the Corps' environmental work relating to military installations. The three services had earlier initiated efforts to remove hazardous materials from their active installations. The new program added hazardous waste disposal from former military sites and the removal of unsafe buildings, ordnance, and other debris from both active and former military sites. The Corps of Engineers, which had already begun providing engineering assistance to the Environmental Protection Agency for its civilian toxic waste removal under the Superfund program enacted in 1980, assumed program management in 1984 of the environmental restoration program for all former military sites, regardless of service.
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