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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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Then we started looking at the biggest sources of pollution. We looked at farms and power plants, which we’ve discussed. We’re going to be doing a piece on sewer overflows, which is a huge source of water pollution.

And then, finally, later this year we’ll look at the Safe Drinking Water Act and issues around that law and whether it’s working. And we’re just going through the data now, but there’s a lot of reasons to believe that in the last ten or fifteen years the world has been transformed, in terms of the chemicals that we can now use and that we have at our disposal, in terms of how dangerous they are at very, very small concentrations, and that these laws that were created in the 1970s have not been updated to deal with these new threats.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, in fact, I recall when I did a lot of research on the toxic releases as a result of the World Trade Center collapse, there’s thousands and thousands of chemicals for which there are no safety limits that the federal government has.

CHARLES DUHIGG: That’s exactly right.

JUAN GONZALEZ: There’s only a very few number of them that are actually regulated in that sense.

CHARLES DUHIGG: That’s absolutely right. And a number -- I mean, what’s interesting is that we have lived through the greatest chemical revolution in the history of the world. Right? I mean, we’ve really solved -- and this has been wonderful in many, many ways. We’ve solved how to create new chemicals and have used that power to really improve the world. But chemicals are dangerous things. And the more complex the chemical, the more dangerous it is at smaller and smaller concentrations. So a lot of these laws, a lot of these protections that were created the 1970s that dealt with arsenic or barium or things that we knew were dangerous and have existed for thousands of years or since the world began, those laws were designed for those chemicals, and they weren’t designed for these new things that are emerging.

So, as a result, the EPA system, which is called TSCA, for analyzing new chemicals and analyzing the threats they represent, is completely broken. The GAO has said that it’s broken. Congress has said that it’s broken. Lisa Jackson has said that it’s broken. They’re trying to redesign that system, but there are thousands and thousands of chemicals that essentially the government has never analyzed, which are part of our daily life and are part of our daily environment.

AMY GOODMAN: And the power of the lobbyists, I go back to, because we see it with the health insurance industry now, we see it operating overtime and overdrive in Washington, DC. In 2000 they had a tremendous effect when the Bush administration was going to issue stricter controls. Their lobbying efforts gutted that, scuttled that. What makes you think the same won’t happen now?

CHARLES DUHIGG: Well, I think what’s happening now is, there’s been a lot of meetings. And, you know, no industry wants more regulation. It just creates more cost, right? I mean, I think anyone who works in any industry thinks, oh, we do a pretty good job, we don’t need the government coming in. So it’s understandable that every industry would fight back against regulation.

What’s happened in the last year -- and part of this is just President Obama has been elected, they see the writing on the wall, and they know they have to change, but also a realization on the part of industry itself that there has to be a cop at the table. Is it -- the chemical manufacturers and the industry has actually sat down with a number of the environmental groups to say we need a more rational system here. So I think there’s a lot of reasons to believe that we’re going to see reform, in part because the EPA has said reform’s coming, whether you want it or not, but in part because the chemical industry has said, “We either have to get on the bus, or we’re going to be left behind.” And there seem to be a lot of good faith efforts on their part to come up with a system.

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