Toxic Waters

On Friday night I watched Frontline’s “Poisoned Waters” (from Netflix via Roku), a two hour investigation by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Hedrick Smith into “the growing hazards of water pollution to human health and the ecosystem.” The program was divided roughly into two segments: First, a look at Chesapeake Bay, and second, an investigation of Puget Sound.  In addition to detailing issues specific to each location, both Chesapeake and Puget were “read” as microcosms of the much larger problem facing America’s waterways.

Broadly speaking, the show highlighted two major issues: agricultural runoff and storm sewers.  Technically speaking, both are considered “nonpoint source pollution” and susceptible to increased ambiguities in terms of measurement and accountability (as compared with “point source pollution”). On the issue of agricultural runoff specifically, The Washington Post described Frontline’s interviews with Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms, and Bill Satterfield, spokesperson for the Delmarva Poultry Industry, as “the kind of verbal evasions that would twinkle a tobacco industry scientist’s eye.” I’m pretty sure that having yourself compared with tobacco “scientists” is never good. Frontline also noted the Clean Water Act’s “citizen suit provision,” which allows citizens to sue polluters and the government for enforcement failures.

Another point raised by the Frontline “Poisoned Waters” episode is the growing gap between the contaminants in use and those covered by regulations. In particular, Frontline discussed a study by the U.S. Geological Survey that tested the Potomac River for some 277 new contaminants NOT covered by the Clean Water Act. Overall, they found 85 contaminants. Of these, only about half of the compounds had safety guidelines. But Frontline also noted a second gap — this one between the contaminants in use and the contaminants capable of being detected. Not even the expanded list tested for by the USGS covers the range of contaminants potentially in use.  In other words, here we see the possibility of externalities which are not yet capable of being externalized, let alone interalized.

Then last night The New York Times home page featured a lengthy story on “Toxic Waters,” along with a companion interactive database of more than 200,000 facilities that have permits to discharge water pollutants. The reporting behind the story is massive, drawing on data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with “hundreds of thousands of water pollution records [obtained] through Freedom of Information Act requests to every state,” and interviews with “more than 250 state and federal regulators, water-system managers, environmental advocates and scientists.”

A few key points:

  • “Nationwide, polluters have violated the Clean Water Act more than 500,000 times.”
  • “[T]he E.P.A. regulate[s] more than 100 pollutants through the Clean Water Act and strictly limit[s] 91 chemicals or contaminants in tap water through the Safe Drinking Water Act.”
  • According to Lisa Jackson, the EPA’s administrator, “[D]espite many successes since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, today the nation’s water does not meet public health goals, and enforcement of water pollution laws is unacceptably low.”
  • “[R]esearch shows that an estimated one in 10 Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet a federal health benchmark in other ways.”
  • “Because most of today’s water pollution has no scent or taste, many people who consume dangerous chemicals do not realize it, even after they become sick.”

According to the database, Pennsylvania is home to 8,654 regulated facilities. Here in the Centre County region where I live, most of the facilities have no reported violations.  However, there were 6 facilities in the area with violations, which I have listed below, first, based on length of compliance failures (e.g., Cerro Metal has been out of compliance 11 of the past 12 quarters), and second, for those facilities not out of compliance, by the number of reported violations (e.g., Mid Centre County PDF has 37 violations, but is not out of compliance). As with Pennsylvania more broadly, NONE of these facilities has been fined for these violations. Again, these data are all from the New York Times website and based on EPA data for 2004-2007 inclusive.

  • Cerro Metal — 61 violations. This facility has been out of regulatory compliance 11 of the past 12 quarters.
  • University Area Joint Authority — 18 violations. This facility has been out of regulatory compliance 5 of the past 12 quarters.
  • Hanover Foods Corp WWTF — 57 violations.  This facility has been out of regulatory compliance 3 of the past 12 quarters.
  • Mid Centre County PCF — 37 violations.  This facility has not been out of compliance in the past 12 quarters.
  • Moshannon Valley Regional — 34 violations.  This facility has been out of regulatory compliance 4 of the past 12 quarters.
  • Port Matilda Boro WWTF — 2 violations.  This facility has not been out of compliance in the past 12 quarters.