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Toxic Waters: Regulatory Absence Allows Chemical, Coal and Farm Industries to Pollute US Water Supplies

No federal regulations specifically govern the disposal of power plant discharges into waterways or landfills.

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AMY GOODMAN: And you write that nineteen-and-a-half million Americans fall ill each year as a result of the waterborne parasites, the viruses, the bacteria.

CHARLES DUHIGG: That’s right. That was a study that was done that tried to estimate how many people become ill.

AMY GOODMAN: Twenty-million people?

CHARLES DUHIGG: I mean -- and when you think about it, most of us who do get sick, we probably don’t realize it, right? You go out, you have an upset stomach for a couple days, and you say, “Oh, I must have eaten something bad the other night.” And you don’t even think about your water, because we don’t assume that water contains bad things in America. And for most of us, it’s just a couple days’ inconvenience. But for some populations -- the elderly, the young, people with diseases or people with immune problems -- these diseases, this exposure can be enormously dangerous. And over a lifetime, as you’re exposed to other things, to arsenic, to carcinogens that are in water, they end up impacting our health in ways that we probably don’t understand.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what were, from what you can tell, the efforts of the Bush administration over the past eight years to deal with some of these problems, as I’m sure EPA scientists and other government scientists were discovering the spread of the problem?

CHARLES DUHIGG: The Bush administration was notably inactive on environmental issues. Now, I will say the reductions in enforcement of the Clean Water Act started under the Clinton administration. So this isn’t a purely Democrat versus Republican issue. That being said, and this has been fairly well documented by my colleagues in other papers as well as at the New York Times , the EPA under the Bush administration was notably inactive on enforcing a lot of environmental regulations.

Lisa Jackson, the new head of the EPA, has said that reversing this is a huge priority for her. And so, we’re seeing a lot more science-based standards coming into the agency. But the problem is that, you know, it takes a long time to build up a robust system. I mean, you can -- it’s like, you know, building a newspaper or building a company. It takes a long time to build it up. You can destroy it in just a couple of years. And so, we’re probably a couple years away from really having the powerful regulation that the Clean Water Act depends on to survive.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Charles Duhigg, you’ve done this series of pieces. Summarize again -- you were on for the first pieces, but summarize the trajectory you’ve taken in each of these pieces --

CHARLES DUHIGG: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: -- and what you’ve looked at of the nation’s water.

CHARLES DUHIGG: We started by looking at a chemical named atrazine, which is a pesticide, that is the most prevalent pesticide in American waters, and basically looked at whether the EPA was regulating this strongly enough. There’s a lot of new science that says that even at very small doses this can cause -- atrazine is related to, or seems somehow connected to, birth defects. And so, the basic question there was, is the scientific system at the EPA working? And some people suggest no.

Then we looked at the Clean Water Act and whether it’s being enforced. And we found that the Clean Water Act is being violated hundreds of thousands of times every year and that those aren’t being punished. And so, as a result, the law doesn’t have any teeth.

 
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