Are You Drinking Unsafe Water? Corporations Have Violated Clean Water Act Over 500,000 Times in Last Five Years

Forty percent of the nation’s community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act at least once, exposing over 23 million people to potential danger.

AMY GOODMAN:An investigation by the New York Times has found chemical companies have violated the Clean Water Act more than 500,000 times in the last five years. Most of the violations have gone unpunished, with state regulators taking significant action in just three percent of all cases.

Although some of the cases entailed minor violations, a majority of 60 percent were deemed to be in "significant noncompliance." These cases are of the most serious and include the dumping of cancer-causing chemicals or failing to measure or report pollution. An estimated one in ten Americans has been exposed to drinking water that has dangerous chemicals or falls short of federal standards. Forty percent of the nation's community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act at least once, exposing over 23 million people to potential danger.

The investigation was published two days after the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would freeze permits for seventy-nine mountaintop removal sites pending a review of their compliance with the Clean Water Act. The move affects mines in four states: Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee.

Charles Duhigg is the New York Times reporter who is carrying out this investigation. His article appeared in Sunday's edition of the New York Times. It's called "Clean Water Laws Are Neglected, at a Cost in Suffering." Charles Duhigg joins me here in the firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

CHARLES DUHIGG:Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

AMY GOODMAN:A remarkable exposé.


AMY GOODMAN:Just lay it out for us.

CHARLES DUHIGG:Well, we spent about ten months collecting records from every single state and the EPA, trying to figure out exactly what was going on with the nation's waters. And what we discovered was that the Clean Water Act was passed about almost four decades ago with the intent of giving regulators the power to monitor what goes into our waterways and then punish people who violate their permits. And everyone who dumps something into a waterway has to have a permit. And what we found is that only about three percent of people who violate their permits ever get punished. And so, somewhat unsurprisingly, the rate of violations has gone up significantly, because companies and workplaces know that they can break the Clean Water Act without getting punished for it.

AMY GOODMAN:You begin your piece in West Virginia.

CHARLES DUHIGG:That's right.


CHARLES DUHIGG:We focus on West Virginia for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's a microcosm of the problems that have been around this issue. It's a national issue, and states all over the country confront this. But in West Virginia, in particular, you see a real struggle and tension between industries, most particularly coal extraction, which is West Virginia's largest industry, and the environmental priorities of people who want to protect waterways. And so, there's a number of communities in West Virginia that are really suffering because their water has been, they claim, ruined by the practices of nearby coal companies. And the state agency has -- the environmental agency has been less vigorous in protecting it.

AMY GOODMAN:Tell us about Jennifer Hall-Massey.

CHARLES DUHIGG:Jennifer is  a mother of two kids right outside Charleston, West Virginia, which is the state capital. And so, this isn't sort of dark corner of Appalachia.

Around her home are mountains that have been mined for coal for years. One of the things that coal companies do is when they extract coal, they wash it in the water, and they put chemicals in it to take out the impurities. The waste that's left over, the water, is called sludge or slurry, and it contains all of these dissolved minerals and chemicals. They put those in these big ponds called impoundments, or they pump them back underground into abandoned mine shafts. And what Jennifer claims, as well as her community, is that the water has filtered out of those mine shafts and those big lagoons and destroyed the local water supplies, which they use for drinking.

AMY GOODMAN:So she and 264 neighbors sued?

CHARLES DUHIGG:That's right, that's right. They've sued the nine coal companies, asking for compensation.

AMY GOODMAN:And where do the state regulators stand in her case? And then go national.

CHARLES DUHIGG:In her case, state regulators say that they cannot find sufficient scientific evidence to show that what the coal companies are pumping underground has ruined the water supplies of local residents. That's part of the problem.

The other part of the problem is that the coal companies themselves admit that they've broken the law, these companies around Jennifer's home. They can't put stuff underground that violates the Safe Drinking Water Act. And they file reports each month saying what's in their injections. And we know from their own reports that that has broken the Safe Drinking Water Act. They've been against the law, and they told the state that every month. But the state didn't do anything. They didn't punish them. In fact, the state says that they basically overlooked the records, and they didn't even realize that these guys were breaking the law.

And that's what's happening all across the country, is that every single month or every single week or every single quarter, companies send in reports, and they say, this is what I'm dumping into a river, or this is what I'm dumping into a pond. And it shows that they're breaking the law, but in most cases regulators either don't look at the report, or even if they see the report, they're not doing anything to punish them.

AMY GOODMAN:And it's not just coal companies. I mean, the figures you're talking about here are astounding. Chemical companies have violated the Clean Water Act 500,000 times.


AMY GOODMAN:Most of the violations go unpunished.

CHARLES DUHIGG:And it's not just chemical companies; it's facilities of any kind. So a lot of the polluters are, for instance, gas stations, dry cleaning stores, wastewater treatment plants that are run by New York City or any other city. These are all facilities that, under the Clean Water Act, are supposed to limit the toxins and other chemicals and pollutants that they dump into rivers or lakes or ponds. And they measure each week or each month what they're dumping, and they tell regulators, but regulators just aren't acting on that.

AMY GOODMAN:How did over 23 million people get exposed to unsafe drinking water?

CHARLES DUHIGG:So, what we did is we looked at all of the numbers from the EPA and from the USGS, the Geological Survey, on how many water districts or wells had violated health-based standards or weren't in conformance with health-based standards, because wells aren't regulated, for the most part, under the Safe Water Drinking Act. And that's the figure that we arrived at, is that all of these people were exposed to water that either contained bacteria, parasites, viruses. And, in fact, one study says that almost 20 million people a year get ill just from consuming those types of things in their water. And then, on the other hand, that's just sort of the bugs that we know about in water. There's also all these chemicals and toxins, carcinogens that can build up in your body and maybe don't make you sick right away, but over decades can accumulate and cause things we know, like cancers, organ failures and other really scary diseases.

AMY GOODMAN:Now, you have compiled, with the Times, a national database of water pollution violations.


AMY GOODMAN:Explain how people can get access to this.

CHARLES DUHIGG:If you go to nytimes.com/water, you'll see a link that let's you find your own state. And what you can do is, you can put in your own zip code and look up who around you has violated the Clean Water Act, and then you can also download all of this data from the states.

One of the things that we found that was really troubling was that we went to the EPA to try and ask them for this information to figure out what's going on. And the EPA's records weren't great, because when we went to the states, the states would say, "No, the EPA is completely wrong. We have all these other violations that the EPA doesn't know about." And so, we asked every single state, send us all of your data, and then we put it all together, and that's what --

AMY GOODMAN:So, your information at the Times database here of polluted water around this country and drinking water is more extensive than the EPA's?

CHARLES DUHIGG:It's more comprehensive than what the EPA has.

AMY GOODMAN:Why aren't the regulators doing more? What needs to be done?

CHARLES DUHIGG:Well, I think that there's two things. And this is a problem that started under the Clinton administration. So it's not just a Republican or Democrat issue. Two things have happened.

The first is that water cleanliness just didn't -- stopped being a priority for the federal government. There were a lot of other issues that came up, and they started focusing on that, particularly air pollution and other things like that. Or under the Bush administration, there just wasn't a lot of economic support for regulatory activities in general. That's part of the problem.

The other part of the problem is that over the last decade or so, Congress has created a whole bunch of new rules, saying we now want state environmental agencies to focus on new types of things: storm water runoff, the types of pollution that goes through sewers. And they said, go worry about these problems, in addition, but we're not going to give you any more money to staff up.

So, as a result, taking New York as an example, the number of facilities that regulators have to oversee has doubled in the last decade to about 19,000 facilities, but the number of inspections that are done every year has stayed exactly the same, because their budget has actually declined each year on an inflation-adjusted basis. So, as a result, you have people who are entirely well-meaning, there are officials who want to be out there policing, but there's only so many hours in the day, and so they miss a lot.

AMY GOODMAN:Finally, the issue of the media doing the work that the government should be doing, that the governments are resourced to do, and also the importance of investigative journalism?

CHARLES DUHIGG:Yeah, it's -- I mean, one of the things that we're enormously proud of is that a lot of the comments from readers have said, "This is why we buy the Times. This is why we appreciate the Times." And, you know, as a journalist, and a fairly young journalist -- and I came to journalism out of business. I had gotten an MBA and started a company, and then I decided to become a journalist --


CHARLES DUHIGG:Because it's a lot more fun than doing other stuff.

You know, I mean, it's a tough time in journalism right now, as you know. And it's a time when, if you look at the headlines, it would seem that the future is dire. But this is the type of work that I think people really appreciate. And I think it demonstrates, A, why people should be supporting journalism, not just with reading it and talking about it, but also buying subscriptions, watching and listening to shows like this. Really, you vote with your dollars and your time, and more importantly, the type of work that we have to do.

AMY GOODMAN:And if people want to see in their community how the water is polluted, again, the website is?

CHARLES DUHIGG:It's nytimes.com/water.

AMY GOODMAN:Charles Duhigg, I want to thank you for being with us, award-winning reporter for the New York Times. His latest piece is on the Clean Water Act and the water in your community.

Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!
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