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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.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. For the past several months, he has been working on a series titled “Toxic Waters,” examining the worsening pollution in the nation’s water systems. Charles Duhigg joined us last month to discuss how 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.

Since then, he has written articles focusing on how coal-fired power plants and large farms are threatening the nation’s drinking water. The Times revealed that 313 coal-fired power plants have violated the Clean Water Act since 2004, but 90 percent of those plants were not fined or otherwise sanctioned. No federal regulations specifically govern the disposal of power plant discharges into waterways or landfills.

AMY GOODMAN: As for farms, runoff from all but the largest farms is essentially unregulated under the Clean Water Act. Agricultural runoff is the single largest source of water pollution in the nation’s rivers and streams. Nearly 20 million Americans fall ill each year from waterborne parasites, viruses or bacteria, including those stemming from human and animal waste.

Well, Charles Duhigg of the New York Times joins us here in our firehouse studio.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

CHARLES DUHIGG: Thank you so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Your articles are also supported by an editorial today in the New York Times about the significance of the 1972 Clean Water Act, how it has to be improved, and the significance of your pieces. Start off by talking about Allegheny Energy, the coal-fired plant in Masontown, Pennsylvania.

CHARLES DUHIGG: This is one of the largest and, for a long time, one of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the United States. And over the last couple of years, we’ve made great advances in how we clean air pollution. So Allegheny, this plant which is called Hatfield’s Ferry, as well as a number of other plants across the nation, have installed these things called scrubbers. And what scrubbers are is it’s basically they spray water and chemicals through the chimneys and take out a lot of the air pollution before it escapes into the sky.

The problem is that when you spray that stuff in there, and sort of the water and the pollution collects at the bottom, you have to do something with it. And what we found is that, increasingly, that pollution and waste is being dumped into nearby rivers and lakes, or it’s being put into large ponds or landfills, where it can also seep through the ground into drinking water supplies. So what the concern is, is that we’re moving pollution perhaps just from the air to the water, and we’re not really solving the problem as robustly as the nation should.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But then, in terms of being able to regulate these plants in terms of water discharges, what has the federal government done?

CHARLES DUHIGG: Well, the federal government -- there are solutions out there. There are systems called zero discharge emission systems that would prevent any pollution from making it into the water or the air. But the federal government has not created any rules for power plants, and this has been a big issue. Way back in 2000, the EPA was poised, and in fact had drafted a rule, to specially regulate pollution, water pollution and other types of pollution, from power plants, but the energy industry pushed back pretty significantly. That rule was shelved, and there’s been no rules designed for power plants since then.

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