For anyone who thinks their drinking water is safe, think again.
One in 10 Americans have been exposed to polluted drinking water, according to a massive investigation by The New York Times
. Armed with hundreds of interviews and hundreds of thousands
of water pollution records, The Times weaves a mind-boggling tale of tainted drinking water resulting from lax oversight and a growing body of violations that go unchecked.
As the paper points out, all this is happening despite the passage four decades ago of the Clean Water Act
. But in the last five years, factories and plants violated those laws more than half a million times.
In an exposé chock full of data, a West Virginia mother named Jennifer Hall-Massey described her family’s plight, including tooth decay, scabs and rashes. A resident of a coal-mining town 17 miles from Charleston, she said about a decade ago local taps began to emit foul smells as coal companies pumped industrial waste into the ground.
Subsequent tests showed the tap water contained arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals. The Times, citing state records, said coal companies spilled more than 1.9 billion gallons of industrial waste into the ground in the eight miles around Hall-Massey’s home since 2004.
But the companies were not fined and state officials largely took no action. Instead, they said the water was safe or the statute of limitations passed on certain violations.
Records show 350 companies violated the Clean Water Act, and Hall-Massey’s community reported gall bladder disease, fertility problems, miscarriages and kidney and thyroid issues. After The Times’ inquiry, officials suspended injection permits. In December, Hall-Massey and 264 neighbors filed a lawsuit.
“How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not clean water?” she asked.
Similar problems exist in other states and the EPA knows it, according to memos The Times unearthed. Indeed, the findings are grim:
· more than 23 million people drank water from municipal systems that violated health standards
· the Clean Water Act was violated more than 506,000 times since 2004 by more than 23,000 companies
· violations grew more than 16 percent between 2004 and 2007
· fewer than 3 percent of Clean Water Act violations were penalized
“The E.P.A. and states have completely dropped the ball,” said Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee charged with water-quality issues.
In many cases, regulators are overburdened, don’t know how to do the job or they fear industry pressure. During the Bush administration, enforcement reached a low point and “polluters were getting away with murder,” one official said.
For their part, EPA officials said from 2006 to 2008, they conducted 11,000 Clean Water Act and 21,000 Safe Drinking Water Act inspections, referring 146 cases to the Department of Justice.
In a hopeful sign, the new EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson
, acknowledged the water supply falls short of public health standards. Enforcement of water pollution laws, she said, is among her top priorities.