Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Companies Polluting Drinking Water With Little Punishment

This Sunday's New York Times offered a horrifying front page article on the routine violation of water quality laws and the neglect of federal and state agencies to enforce them. According to the Times, 10% of Americans have drinking water that fails to meet federal standards, resulting in 19.5 million water-related illnesses per year. In the last year alone, 40% of drinking water systems violated some aspect of federal regulations at least once. Federal data records 506,000 violations of the Clean Water Act since 2004. According to this article, the violations may well be far worse because many companies try to evade enforcement by not reporting emission of pollutants. Meanwhile, only 3% of these reported violations resulted in punishment.

This is not some abstract problem. It has real consequences for real people. In some places, the pollution of the water supply has become so bad that residents cannot even safely use it for bathing, much less drink it. In one town near Charleston, West Virginia, the bath water causes blisters and rashes:

In fact, her entire family tries to avoid any contact with the water. Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the bathwater — polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals — caused painful rashes. Many of his brother’s teeth were capped to replace enamel that was eaten away.

Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.

“How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not clean water?” said Mrs. Hall-Massey, a senior accountant at one of the state’s largest banks.
Skin rashes were hardly the only health problems connected to toxic drinking water in that town. There have also been spikes in miscarriages, diseases, and tooth problems. In the case of that town, the cause is that coal companies have been pumping toxic waste left over from coal mining into the ground for about a decade:
Mining companies often wash their coal to remove impurities. The leftover liquid — a black fluid containing dissolved minerals and chemicals, known as sludge or slurry — is often disposed of in vast lagoons or through injection into abandoned mines. The liquid in those lagoons and shafts can flow through cracks in the earth into water supplies. Companies must regularly send samples of the injected liquid to labs, which provide reports that are forwarded to state regulators.

In the eight miles surrounding Mrs. Hall-Massey’s home, coal companies have injected more than 1.9 billion gallons of coal slurry and sludge into the ground since 2004, according to a review of thousands of state records. Millions more gallons have been dumped into lagoons.
Even though this toxic slurry has been seeping into drinking water, none of the companies involved has been punished or warned by either the state or federal government. Why not? Part of the problem is that the enforcement divisions of state agencies tend to be understaffed. State and local officials play a major role in enforcing state and federal water quality laws. Yet departments of environmental protection are always easy targets for job cuts or hiring freezes when it comes time to balance state budgets. Reducing the size of government means, in part, getting rid of the people that keep your drinking water safe.

However, maintaining an adequate enforcement staff is not the only problem. In some cases, the existing staff are prevented from doing their jobs by heavy lobbying or political machinations. One West Virginia environmental lawyer who enforced clean water laws against mining companies was eventually fired for doing just that. Others in the state agency faced pressure:
Since then, hundreds of workplaces in West Virginia have violated pollution laws without paying fines. A half-dozen current and former employees, in interviews, said their enforcement efforts had been undermined by bureaucratic disorganization, a departmental preference to let polluters escape punishment if they promise to try harder, and a revolving door of regulators who leave for higher-paying jobs at the companies they once policed.

“We are outmanned and overwhelmed, and that’s exactly how industry wants us,” said one employee who requested anonymity for fear of being fired. “It’s been obvious for decades that we’re not on top of things, and coal companies have earned billions relying on that.”
The new head of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, promises to strengthen enforcement of clean water laws and hold polluters more accountable. However, I fear that without major cultural changes in state and federal governments, sickening amounts of toxins will continued to be dumped into streams and well water. As long as it is acceptable – indeed, preferred – for agencies to let big contributors get away with violations, those violations will go unpunished, or at most incur a slap on the wrist.

In any case, you should read the full article. It is eye-opening and well worth the time. It includes interactive sections so you can learn about violations and enforcement records in your area.