Residents in an area near Charleston, West Virginia have started to avoid contact with tap water after scabs began developing on their arms, legs and chests where the bathwater, which is polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals, caused painful rashes. The residents also began complaining of increased health problems, such as losing the enamel on their teeth, gall bladder diseases, fertility problems, miscarriages and kidney and thyroid issues. Tests have shown tap water contains arsenic, lead, magnesium, barium and other chemicals at concentrations that federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage to the kidneys and nervous system. A survey of more than 100 residents conducted by a nurse, who was hired by a lawyer representing a resident in a lawsuit regarding the dangerous water quality, indicated that as many as thirty percent of people in this area have had their gallbladders removed, and as many as half the residents have significant tooth enamel damage, chronic stomach problems and other illnesses.
The contamination began when nearby coal companies began pumping sludge, or leftover liquid used to wash coal of its impurities, into the ground, contaminating ground water. According to state reports, the companies injected about 1.9 billion gallons of waste into the ground since 2004; millions of gallons were also dumped into lagoons. These injections have contained chemicals at concentrations that pose serious health risks and break not only the federal law but state laws as well. Sometimes these amounts exceeded the imposed limit by as much as one thousand percent. Due to the dangers posed by the water, two hundred and sixty people sued nine nearby coal companies, accusing them of putting dangerous waste in local water supplies. It is very hard to hold a company responsible, however, since it is hard to tell what company put which contaminants in the ground and caused the most problems. As required by state law, some of the coal companies had disclosed in reports to regulators that they were pumping illegal concentrations of chemicals, the same pollutants that flowed from residents’ taps, into the ground; state regulators did not punish the companies, however, for breaking these pollution laws, nor were they warned that their activities had been noticed. When asked why the illegal activity had been ignored, West Virginia officials said the issue was accidently overlooked but their studies suggest the contamination would not have affected drinking water in the area.
This pattern is unfortunately not limited to West Virginia. According to a study in the scientific journal Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, an estimated 19.5 million Americans become ill each year from drinking water that contains parasites, bacteria or viruses. This figure does not include illnesses caused by contaminants or toxins. About forty years ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act as a way to force polluters to disclose the toxins they dump into bodies of water and to give regulators the power to fine or jail offenders. Many states also passed their own versions of the law, though an extensive report by the New York Times showed violations of the act have risen steadily across the nation. For example, since 2004, manufacturing plants, chemical factories and other workplaces have violated water pollution laws more than half a million times. This number only accounts for violations reported by the companies themselves; illegal violations would increase the figure dramatically. These violations include failure to report emissions to dumping toxins that regulators fear may cause birth defects, cancer and other illnesses. Though some of the violations were minor, about sixty percent of the polluters were deemed in “significant non-compliance”, meaning their violations were the most serious kind, for example dumping cancer-causing materials into the water. The report also showed that only three percent of the polluters have faced punishment from either the state or the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), which can prosecute polluters when states fail to act. The EPA has faced scrutiny following the dissemination, through leaks and the Freedom of Information Act, of memos labeled “DO NOT DISTRIBUTE”, which showed federal regulators were aware that more than thirty states had companies that were violating pollution laws. Another memo showed the EPA was aware that the “states’ personnel lack direction, ability or training” to levy fines large enough to deter and punish polluters. Still, other memos explained that the agency was not going to correct the problems out of fear that it would risk its relationships with the states.
Many state and federal legislators claim they had no idea the pollution was so widespread and have vowed to make appropriate changes. In one controversial case in West Virginia, however, a state official attempted to close polluted mines and was then fired from his job, creating a bureaucracy clambering for job security. Since this time, hundreds of workplaces in West Virginia have violated pollution legislation without paying fines. Six current and former employees said their enforcement efforts had been undermined by bureaucratic disorganization, a departmental preference allowing polluters to escape punishment if they promise to try harder, and a revolving door of regulators who leave for higher-paying jobs at the companies they once regulated. Many state officials are defending their efforts, pointing out that there has been a ten percent increase in the number of cease-operation orders issued by regulators from 2006 to 2008.
Since it is difficult to determine what pollutants cause diseases like cancer, it is impossible to know how many illnesses are caused by water pollution or the contaminants’ role in the health problems of specific individuals. However, concern over contaminants are great enough that the EPA and Congress regulate more than one hundred pollutants through the Clean Water Act and strictly limit ninety-one chemicals or contaminants in drinking water through the Safe Drinking Water Act. Lisa P. Jackson, the new EPA administrator, has acknowledged the fact that despite the Clean Water Act’s many successes, the nation’s water does not currently meet public health goals. She also recognizes the enforcement of water pollution is very low, but has made it one of her top priorities to strengthen water protections and pressure states to enforce the law; state officials claim they are doing all they can with the limited resources provided.
Though the number of regulated facilities has more than doubled in the last ten years, many state enforcement budgets have remained basically flat when adjusted for inflation. For example, in New York, the number of regulated polluters has almost doubled to 19,000 in the last ten years, but the number of annual inspections has remained about the same. Limited state budgets are only part of the problem. The New York Time’s investigation also found that in states, such as West Virginia, with powerful industries, the companies lobby for and are awarded relaxed regulation. State officials also point out that water pollution statistics include minor, non-life threatening infractions, such as failing to file reports.
The New York Times research was turned into a database, and can be accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/toxicwaters. That research showed an estimated one in ten Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains hazardous chemicals, including carcinogens, or fails to meet a federal health benchmark in other ways; wells, which are not typically regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, are more likely to contain dangerous contaminants than municipal water systems. The research also showed that last year, forty percent of the nation’s community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act once. The violations ranged from failing to maintain proper paperwork to allowing carcinogens into tap water. Therefore, more than 23 million people received drinking water from municipal systems that violated a health-based standard. Following this study by the Times, West Virginia officials have declared a statewide moratorium on issuing injection permits and told some companies that regulators were investigating their injections.
Lawmakers and environmental activists claim the best solution to the problem is for Congress to hold the EPA and states accountable for their failures. They also believe the Clean Water Act should be expanded to police other types of pollution, such as farm and livestock runoff, since they are largely unregulated and the government should give state agencies more resources. Many experts do not believe major change will happen, however, until there is a large public outcry.
Unfortunately, the people usually affected by these polluters, these large, powerful, corporate interests, are people who do not have the means to combat the power and money arrayed against them. That is precisely why, in many instances, the polluters located and dumped in the locations they did – because they believed they could get away with the behavior. And, in many cases, they have gotten away with it, with the exception of a slap on the wrist – a fine that amounts to little more than lunch money for many of these corporations.