Water pollution, an invisible and pervasive threat: Part I of II

by Antonia Sohns, contributing writer

Water supplies are increasingly under stress. Pollution, development, mismanagement and poorly updated water infrastructure have been diminishing and degrading the small percentage of freshwater available on Earth at a rapid rate. Many hedge funds and investors are recognizing how water’s value has been overlooked and are buying up water rights across the country. Unless government prevents worsening and prolonged structural inequality around water resources, such investments and the commodification of water will continue to pay off as competition for water resources increases due to growing populations, heightened demand from sectors and the onset of climate change.

Congress and state governments have been slow to act in updating water infrastructure and adequately protecting water resources, as politicians want ribbon-cutting ceremonies, media attention and the name recognition that comes with new projects. Maintaining sewage systems or replacing old water pipes is comparatively lackluster work until crisis demands it.

The crisis of Flint, Michigan exemplifies this neglect. Michigan’s state government prioritized cost-savings over public health when it decided to source drinking water from the Detroit water supply to the more corrosive Flint River. In the supply shift and the failure to treat the water with anti-corrosive chemicals, more than 8,000 children under the age of 6 were exposed to unsafe lead levels. Those children and their communities are now at risk of long-term health consequences.

The reaction to Flint has been severe and from the highest levels of government. President Obama declared a state of emergency, and presidential candidates continue to discuss the negligence of the state government and how we must avoid a similar crisis in the future.

While a swift response is vital, Flint’s experience with lead poisoning does not stand alone. As the situation in Flint was fully revealed, stories of water pollution rang out across the country.

Less than 300 miles away in Sebring, Ohio, more than 8,000 people learned that their water supply had elevated levels of lead and was unsafe to drink after a local official may have falsified documents on water quality that resulted in a delay of notification for five months.

In Hoosick Falls in northern New York, the community was recently told not to drink the water after local resident Michael Hickey noticed high rates of cancer and found elevated levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in the water due to emissions from a nearby plastics plant. Due to this incident and that PFOA has been detected in 94 water systems in 27 states, serving more than 6.5 million people, the EPA now considered an “emerging contaminant.”

In Toledo, Ohio, 500,000 people were left without water after dangerously high levels of toxins from algae were found in Lake Erie in 2014. Government officials stated that the growth of blue-green algae was caused by an influx of nitrogen and phosphorous from over-fertilized fields, malfunctioning septic systems or livestock pens.

Pollution of drinking water supplies can come suddenly as the result of a water supply shift, or the pollutant can be a legacy of a past policy decision. California is now reckoning with the presence of 123 Trichloropropane which was used in agricultural processes to control nematodes that were parasitizing plants’ roots for nearly 40 years until the 1970s. Despite its discontinued use, 1,2,3-TCP continues to be detected in about 100 public water supply systems from the Central Valley to Santa Cruz and Los Angeles. Approximately 30 communities are now suing Dow Chemical and Shell on their use of the pesticide and its subsequent leaching into groundwater.

Water quality is not only threatened by industry and agriculture, other sectors including energy development and municipalities have significant adverse impacts on surface water and groundwater. Abandoned mines cause toxic wastewater leaks and acid mine drainage that has contaminated more than 40 percent of western watersheds according to the EPA. Power plant discharges release chemicals like mercury, arsenic, lead and selenium into waterways.

While the EPA seeks to control water pollution by issuing new rules and emboldening existing legislation, such as the Clean Water Act, the chemicals and pollutants discharged into U.S. waters continue to find their way into groundwater and drinking water supplies.

To set the standard for drinking water and control for chemicals in the water supply, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was enacted in 1974. Yet, the law has left communities insufficiently protected and has not been adequately updated to regulate new chemicals and pollutants used by the private sector. Since the widespread deployment of hydraulic fracturing, the SDWA has been the target of criticism for not regulating the underground injection of fluids used in the technology’s processes and therefore leaving groundwater resources at risk of contamination from the development activities. While the EPA had regulated injection of fluids for enhanced oil recovery and disposal, it had not regulated the underground injection of fluids for hydraulic fracturing of oil or gas production wells except in Alabama from 1997 to 2005. To amend the SDWA and explicitly include hydraulic fracturing under the scope of the law, several bills have been introduced before Congress but are unlikely to be considered in committees or on the floor.

Regulating chemicals in drinking water supplies

There are over 60,000 chemicals at use in the U.S. and only 91 contaminants are monitored by the SDWA. Since 2000, 11 revisions to existing regulations were made and a Groundwater Rule and Airline Drinking Water Rule were passed to control microbial contamination. Yet, over the past 16 years no new chemicals have been added to the list.

Many contaminants in the water supply have been linked to cancer or diseases, even at low concentrations. The 10 parts per billion drinking water standard for arsenic, for example, which is both naturally occurring in the environment and has been used in manufacturing processes, wood preservatives, and rodent poisons, is at a level where a community that consumed water with legal arsenic levels over their lifetime could result in one in 500 people developing cancer.

In testing the safety of water, scientists need the methods and equipment to measure the concentration and presence of a range of contaminants. If it is not known that a pollutant exists in the water supply, the water tests may miss it altogether. Therefore, water managers must work closely with industries to increase transparency about the chemicals they are using in operations and manufacturing processes to safeguard drinking water supplies.

The E.P.A. is currently conducting a 6-year review of every National Primary Drinking Water Regulation to ensure they maintain or strengthen public health. In this review process, some chemicals on the Contaminant Candidate List, such as PFOA from the Hoosick Falls case, will be considered for regulation under SDWA. While the CCL highlights a small number of contaminants within the universe of potential pollutants every five years, it does not require any action on the part of water utilities to remove the chemical from water supplies until it is regulated by the SDWA. Thus, many contaminants remain in the drinking water supply; with thousands more chemicals entering the system that have yet to be evaluated.

Inequities in drinking water along socio-economic lines

Although a lack of political investment in water infrastructure and drinking water regulation affects all Americans and heightens exposure to PFOA, and other unregulated chemicals, there is great disparity across the U.S. in the level of exposure and harm. Minority and low-income communities experience more frequent and higher magnitude exposure to environmental burdens. These communities are less able to address environmental hazards due to political disenfranchisement and limited knowledge of exposure.

Few studies of environmental justice have examined the inequities of drinking water contamination, but research in California’s San Joaquin Valley, often called “the food basket of the world,” revealed that community water systems serving minorities and residents of lower socio-economic status had higher levels of arsenic and nitrate and were more likely to violate national drinking water standards.

At even greater risk of contamination are the more than 47 million people, or 15 percent of Americans, who depend on groundwater from private wells for drinking water and are unregulated by the SDWA. Nationally, more than 20 percent of private wells have one or more contaminants at a concentration that poses a health concern. A recent study revealed that 19 percent of the private well systems tested in Virginia had lead levels that exceeded the threshold allowed for public water systems. Water from one well documented lead levels that were 1,600 times the EPA maximum threshold.

Many of the 46 million people living in rural areas depend on private wells as they are not connected to municipal water lines. In the Navajo Nation, the use of unregulated water sources from private wells is the greatest public health risk associated with drinking water due to the proximity to abandoned uranium mines. In tested wells, concentrations of radionuclides, including uranium, exceeded drinking water standards. For example, a portion of the Navajo Nation 100 miles west of Albuquerque does not have running water access for 40 percent of the population. Private well owners are responsible for testing the water supply and ensuring proper well construction.

Depending on the parameters and contaminants tested for in a private well, costs can range from $5 to $250, while installing treatment systems can cost between $1,200 and $3,000. These costs can be prohibitive, as approximately 18 percent of rural America lives in poverty, with one in nine rural children living in deep poverty. Due to the geography of poverty and the dependence on private wells, these communities are at heightened risk of exposure to water contaminants and the legacy of health effects.

Across the country, drinking water supplies need to be reexamined and reinvested in to protect the health of all Americans. In doing so, the disparities around the safety and security of drinking water supply must be addressed to prevent protracted inequities based on socio-economic factors.