5 Deadly Threats to Our Precious Drinking Water Supply
Continued from previous page
4. Licenses to Pollute
How have we done in the 40 years since the Clean Water Act was passed? Back when the Cuyahoga River was flammable, about two-thirds of our rivers and lakes weren't safe for fishing and swimming. Today, the number is around 40 to 50 percent. Better, but not great. Why? Because the law has been chipped away over the years -- and it was an imperfect law to start, particularly because of its exemption for agriculture.
Two Supreme Court Cases in 2001 and 2006 created ambiguity over which waterways would be protected and there has been a recent legislative assault coming mostly from Republicans. In the last two years several bills have come out of the House of Representatives -- although not passed by the Senate -- that blatantly attack clean water laws. The Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011 basically stripped the EPA's right to carry out its duties to enforce the Clean Water Act. And there have been calls from Republicans to abolish the EPA altogether.
Investigative reporting from the New York Times' Toxic Water series puts into context how troubling this is. Without safeguards like the Clean Water Act we're in serious trouble. In fact, we need to be doing more, not less to protect our waters. In 2009 Charles Duhigg wrote for the Times:
Records analyzed by The Times indicate that the Clean Water Act has been violated more than 506,000 times since 2004, by more than 23,000 companies and other facilities, according to reports submitted by polluters themselves. Companies sometimes test what they are dumping only once a quarter, so the actual number of days when they broke the law is often far higher. And some companies illegally avoid reporting their emissions, say officials, so infractions go unrecorded. ...
Some violations are relatively minor. But about 60 percent of the polluters were deemed in "significant noncompliance" -- meaning their violations were the most serious kind, like dumping cancer-causing chemicals or failing to measure or report when they pollute.
Even more shocking then the fact that companies are polluting this much is that they're getting away with it. As Duhigg writes, "The Times's research shows that fewer than 3 percent of Clean Water Act violations resulted in fines or other significant punishments by state officials. And the E.P.A. has often declined to prosecute polluters or force states to strengthen their enforcement by threatening to withhold federal money or take away powers the agency has delegated to state officials."
In Water Matters, Jeff Conant says, "It is not merely who owns the water, but who has a right to pollute and exploit it." Right now, we've given industry a virtual free pass to pollute. In one example, Duhigg writes about the effects of coal mining where the toxic waste slurry that is leftover after the coal is cleaned is injected into abandoned mines where it can leak into the water supply. He explains what has happened in one area near West Virginia's capital:
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.
These underground injections have contained chemicals at concentrations that pose serious health risks, and thousands of injections have violated state regulations and the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to reports sent to the state by companies themselves.
For instance, three coal companies -- Loadout, Remington Coal and Pine Ridge, a subsidiary of Peabody Energy, one of the largest coal companies in the world -- reported to state officials that 93 percent of the waste they injected near this community had illegal concentrations of chemicals including arsenic, lead, chromium, beryllium or nickel.