Water pollution in this country has reached new levels. Learn how to protect yourself.
Come take a ride on America’s toxic water slide: Ongoing lead-laced water in Flint, Michigan finally detected by the EPA in February 2015 with the help of resident Lee-Anne Waters; 1,2,3-TCP, a Big Oil-manufactured chemical, hidden in pesticides in hundreds of wells in Fresno, California; significant amounts of 1,4-dioxane, an industry solvent stableizer along North Carolina’s Cape Fear River Basin; outbreaks of waterborne Legionnaires’ threatening disease residents in New York and Pennsylvania (the bacteria grows easily in water distribution systems and often hides in the biofilm of aging pipes).
Meanwhile in June 2016, kids in Hoosick Falls, New York protested in the streets with placards featuring PFOA levels (Perfluorooctanoic acid, a manmade chemical used in Teflon) around their necks to denote how much has infiltrated their blood through water pollution levels.
Cut to Houston, Texas where high levels of hexavalent chromium, the cancer-causing chemical made infamous by Erin Brockovich, are turning up in tap water while thousands of fracking poisons are overunning imperiled communities and indigenous reservations.
And, to add to the cesspit, just four days after Trump was sworn in, he sanctioned the $3.8 billion, 1,170-mile Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that will create underground contamination and water pollution.
Yes indeed, the story of water pollution in America is dirty and deep, and begins in the 1930s, at the dawn of chemical agriculture. Quality reports on what flows today out of American faucets read like a description for liquid cancer.
Meanwhile, the water we do have isn’t enough. Since 2008, nearly every region of the U.S. has experienced a water shortage.
“Houston. We. Have. A. Problem,” says Erin Brockovich, environmental activist and veritable “waterkeeper,” in reference to the nation’s water supply and water pollution. Brockovich should know, she’s been at it for more than 25 years, ever since her investigation uncovered that Pacific Gas & Electric was poisoning the small town of Hinckley, California by adding the cooling water biocide Chromium 6 Cr(VI) into the water supply for more than 30 years. The adverse health effects associated with Cr(VI) exposure include occupational asthma, eye irritation and damage, perforated eardrums, respiratory irritation, kidney damage, liver damage, pulmonary congestion and edema, upper abdominal pain, nose irritation, and respiratory cancer.
“It’s not just one Flint. It’s hundreds of Flints,” says the spitfire who became a household name in 2000 when Julia Roberts portrayed her in the Oscar-winning, self-titled film. “We’ve already slipped and we’re on the cusp of Third World conditions when it comes to our water supply.”
According to an Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) analysis of federal data from nationwide drinking water tests, Chromium 6 alone, which remains unregulated to this day, contaminates the water supplies of more than 200 million Americans in all 50 states. That’s roughly two-thirds of the population.
Water Pollution: The Larger Toxic Soup
Brockovich, often learns about water pollution via the thousands of emails she receives from around the country. Just consider her the Dear Abby of Dirty Water. For instance, a year before the mainstream media got word, she was alerted via email about Flint. The correspondence have never ceased. At the time of our interview, Brockovich was heading to Hannibal, Missouri where the people are contending with high levels of lead and the dangerous byproduct chloramine. She has also begun an investigation in Waycross, Georgia to understand why there’s a cluster of cancer amid children, and she’ll eventually visit Tyler, Texas to probe its connection with the cancer-causing disinfectant haloacetic acids (HAA5).
It’s come to the point where Brockovich sees the country by chemical, not by state. Give her a poison, and she’ll tell you which state you can find it in. She can easily cite 40 states coping with water pollution from lead and hexavalent chromium, among other substances.
Distilling Toxins For Truth
Despite facts, politicians have failed to recognize that clean water is a national security issue. How close do the dots have to be before they can be connected?
“I think everyone is waking up,” says Brockovich. “Whatever agency on the hill they think is keeping tabs … that’s not really what’s happening.”
In other words, regardless of the administration, the EPA has been dysfunctional and in disarray for ages, protecting industry-backed efforts rather than our health.
“There are well meaning, intelligent scientists and engineers … but it’s such a cluster mess. They don’t know where to go. They are held back. This is an agency that is overburdened, broke. They’re in a vice and they cannot move,” adds Brockovich.
It doesn’t help that the country doesn’t abide by the precautionary principle and the truth is that long before Trump, the Overton window shifted as we decided toxic chemicals were actually safe unless proven harmful.
With a Climate Denier as President and an “anti-EPA EPA” as regulator, the Trump administration has arguably just made it more obvious and official that the almighty dollar rules at the expense of people and planet, effectively putting the environment on the fast track toward hell. We’re already rolling back Obama-era regulations on coal-burning power plants and climate change. The “Green Blob,” aka the EPA, is now being run by Scott Pruitt, best known for suing the agency 14 times, including motions to block regulations on clean water where he presided in Oklahoma. Scott Pruitt’s official biography even describes the 14th administrator as a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”
Despite findings by the Government Accounting Office that as many as 15 percent of localities lack the resources to address environmental challenges, the current administration’s budget proposal hopes to cut the EPA’s funding by 31 percent by focusing on killing climate change programs, arguably dismantling the agency’s ability to protect the health of Americans. .
“The fundamental issue is lack of funds, particularly in areas where population is declining as America’s demographics change,” writes Deborah Seligsohn, who researches environmental governance at the University of California at San Diego.
On Tap: The United Corporation Of America
The extent to which companies control government has never been more blatantly obvious. For decades, toxic-waste sites and irresponsible industries have managed to discharge hundreds of toxic chemicals, pharmaceuticals, disinfection byproducts, plastics, and heavy metals into the water supply either without repercussion or with penalties that are too slight to change business practices.
Put simply, water today has become a repository for industrial waste, explains water quality specialist Dr. Roy M. Speiser Of Clean Water Revival.
People are being misled to believe that drinking water is safe because it meets government standards. The notion that the EPA’s allowable concentration levels of toxic contaminants in your drinking water is ‘safe’ is a myth. If a certain chemical or heavy metal such as arsenic is present in trace amounts, and you drink this water over an extended period, it accumulates in your body, which contributes to a chronic health disorder. (Speiser)
Unfortunately, it’s insidiously difficult to track cumulative effects unless there is acute exposure, and Western medicine often fails to acknowledge toxic body burden levels or factor that notion in when diagnosing disease. Corporations can also bank on latency periods. Depending on the amount of exposure or ingestion, symptoms can take 10 or 20 years to pronounce themselves.
“The amount of chemicals in our air, water, waterways, and soil is one of the most frustrating things about how EPA regulates chemicals in the environment,” says environmental investigator Bob Bowcock, Brockovich’s partner in crime, whom she fondly calls “Bill the Science Guy.” “They don’t take into account all the various pathways you are exposed to – drinking, cooking, swimming, showering, brushing teeth – from just one medium: water.”
According to a study in the National Center for Biotechnology Information:
Non-genetic, environmental exposures are involved in causation, in some cases probably by interacting with genetically inherited predispositions. Strong evidence exists that industrial chemicals widely disseminated in the environment are important contributors to what we have called the global, silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity.
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which was originally enacted into law in 1974, was supposed to focus on ensuring that public drinking water meets appropriate safety standards; in contrast, the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA) theoretically regulates water pollution in our nation’s lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water.
But when it comes to water pollution, the EPA has operated at a glacial pace.
EWG’s tests and a petition from environmental groups pushed the EPA to add chromium-6 to the chemicals local utilities must-test, under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. The SDWA requires the EPA to review each national primary drinking water regulation at least once every six years and revise them, if appropriate. The 1996 amendments, meanwhile, require the EPA to select up to 30 previously unregulated contaminants for testing every five years, according to EWG.
Yet in two decades, the EPA has ordered testing for only 81 contaminants out of thousands, and moved forward on setting a regulation for a mere one: the rocket fuel ingredient perchlorate. It’s actual implementation: two years behind schedule.
“For an agency to be unable to adopt a single standard (for water contaminants) in 20 years is inexcusable,” Erik Olson, health and environment program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has told The Washington Post. “It’s a combination of a bad law and very bad implementation.”
According to Brockovich, a lack of regulations for water pollution isn’t the issue.
Any regulation without enforcement and oversight is moot … We have a Clean Water Act implemented by none other than the Nixon administration that everyone wants to dodge and not follow, and that’s why we’re in the trouble we’re in. We have some really good laws on the books. Let’s just enforce them and we can begin to make headway. (Brockovich)
Water Pollution: Drops Of Hope
Despite Pruitt’s track record, the Flint crisis was so egregious that the EPA is taking steps to improve their situation. They awarded a $100-million grant to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, approved by Congress and former President Barack Obama late last year, to fund drinking water infrastructure upgrades in Flint. Pruitt has also expressed interest in allotting $20 million to the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program (WIIN), and the “EPA will especially focus on helping Michigan improve Flint’s water infrastructure as part of our larger goal of improving America’s water infrastructure,” says Pruitt.
According to the agency, the WIIN funding supplements EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which has reportedly provided more than $32.5 billion to states for infrastructure upgrades through the years.
And yet, according to The New York Times, Pruitt also began the complicated legal process of rewriting the sweeping 2015 rule known as the Waters of the United States which allows the federal government authority to limit water pollution in major bodies of water. It falls under the Clean Water Act.
“Because the water protection rule was finalized under existing laws, the legality to alter the rule after this fact is under question. It cannot simply be rewritten,” legal experts in both the Obama and the White House have stated.
Frack This: The Halliburton Loophole
Despite the SDWA, the EPA does not regulate the injection of fracking fluids. Today, oil and gas companies can dump whatever they want – and do – into the nation’s water supplies, carte blanche, due to the Halliburton Loophole.
In 2005, a national energy bill included the exemption of hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
At the time, Dick Cheney was not only Vice President but, incredulously, also the CEO of Halliburton, the company that patented hydraulic fracturing in the ‘40s.
“Of course politics were involved and at play in exempting the oil and gas industry from the Drink Water Act and Safe Water Act,” says Kandi Mossett of North Dakota, a leading voice in the fight to bring visibility to the impacts that climate change and environmental injustice are having on indigenous communities across North America.
Even though common sense suggests fracking is linked to the environmental assault we’re witnessing, companies are protected because of regulations that prevent them from having to detail and report their chemical dumps because in a court of law you cannot directly connect them with any chemical, says Mossett.
“They didn’t need to tally the chemicals and toxins they were using in their processes and that’s when everything really began raging around the country when it came to fracking,” says the 37- year-old who also serves as the Indigenous Environmental Network (EIN) Lead Organizer on the Extreme Energy and Just Transition Campaign.
“Every frack job they do on a single rig uses a minimum of 6 million tons of water. And it has to be pristine water because it has less contaminants that will interact with their water, which involves up to 2,000 chemicals,” explains Mossett.
A 2011 EPA report estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used to fracture 35,000 wells in the United States each year. This is equivalent to approximately the annual water consumption of 40 to 80 cities, each with a population of 50,000, according to Earthworks.
This extraction of so much water for fracking is what has raised so many concerns about the ecological destruction of aquatic resources, as well as the dewatering of drinking water aquifers.
“It has also been estimated that the transportation of a million gallons of water (fresh or waste water) requires hundreds of truck trips, increasing the greenhouse gas footprint of oil and gas and contributing to air pollution,” reports Source Watch.
Although the EPA was responsible for the cleanup, it never really happened.
“It was more like they poured water on it, and let it go down the hill and down the creek and into the Missouri River. So again, you have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers messing with water ways and causing contaminats.”
Meanwhile, the media has described these various spills associated with the multibillion-dollar fracking industry as “brine,” a simple euphemism that turns a toxic event into something commonplace and benign.
Standing Rock: And The Pipes Build On
The Lakota prophecy describes a “black snake” that warns of the destruction of Mother Earth. The Dakota Access Pipeline, which encroaches on treaty rights and is headed straight for ancestral lands and waters, fits the bill.
Despite the contention between the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, environmental activists, and militarized law enforcement, water protectors like Brockovich and Mossett view Standing Rock as a success. While a total of 700 water protectors were arrested, and legal aid for court cases is still needed, the movement served to mobilize people into solidarity, from Sweden to Venezuela.
“We’re not going to just let it go,” adds Mossett, who was at Standing Rock for the entire duration of the protests, from April 2016 to February 2017. “Pipelines are toxic and an illegal violation of human rights and indigenous sovereignty.”
Water Wars: Superman Isn’t Coming
The sad truth is institutions over-archingly exist to hide threats, not to disclose them. We the people can no longer convince ourselves that if there was really something to be concerned about someone, somewhere, in some federal public protection agency would protect us.
In light of a broken system that allows industrial chemicals to be used with abandon, without any significant testing for safety, and with the imminent slashing of the federal agency’s budget, we are headed toward more illnesses and deaths.
“Superman is not coming,” says Brockovich. “We have to stop thinking it’s going to trickle down from the top. It’s going to have to begin with YOU in your backyard, at your city council. The change is going to come from the people, just like it has in Flint and Hannibal.”
For instance, the first thing people can do is call their municipality and ask for a quality water report to figure out what filters may or may not work to purify drinking water and protect against water pollution toxicity.
Incidentally in 2016, President Barack Obama signed off on Trevor’s Law. Part of a larger toxic substances reform bill, it’s goal is to protect children and communities from areas where disease clusters have been identified.
Part of the vision included a federally-run national registry but rather than wait for the government, Brockovich and her team created The Community Health Book.
Banking on online user activity, this invaluable interactive map allows for self-reporting that will help us locate and identify disease cluster outbreaks and monitor migratory pathways for the first time.
Since going live a few months ago, the site generates about 150 new reports a week.
“It’s a scary scenario but we always stay hopeful and positive,” says Brockovich. “When the people get more informed, they get stronger and then changes can start to happen. The very first step is getting people to wake up.”
Please visit and share The Community Health Book, as we join together to protect ourselves, our children, our health, our water, and the environment. And make your voice heard at the second annual People’s Climate Rally which will be held in Washington D.C. on April 29th in conjunction with Trump’s 100th day in office.
Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.
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