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20th August 2017
EDITOR
Millions consumed potentially unsafe water in the past 10 years

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a “D” grade for the quality of its drinking water systems based on an evaluation of their safety, condition, capacity and other criteria.

Agnel Philip and Elizabeth Sims and Jordan Houston and Rachel Konieczny
August 18, 2017

This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

WOLFFORTH, Texas – As many as 63 million people – nearly a fifth of the country – from rural central California to the boroughs of New York City, were exposed to potentially unsafe water more than once during the past decade, according to a News21 investigation of 680,000 water quality and monitoring violations from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The findings highlight how six decades of industrial dumping, farming pollution, and water plant and distribution pipe deterioration have taken a toll on local water systems. Those found to have problems cleaning their water typically took more than two years to fix these issues, with some only recently resolving decades-old violations of EPA standards and others still delivering tainted water, according to data from the agency’s Safe Drinking Water Information System.

Many local water treatment plants, especially those in small, poor and minority communities, can’t afford the equipment necessary to filter out contaminants. Those can include arsenic found naturally in rock, chemicals from factories and nitrates and fecal matter from farming. In addition, much of the country’s aging distribution pipes delivering the water to millions of people are susceptible to lead contamination, leaks, breaks and bacterial growth.

Experts warn contamination in water can lead to cancer, gastrointestinal diseases and developmental delays in children.

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The EPA estimates local water systems will need to invest $384 billion in the coming decades to keep water clean. The cost per person is more than twice as high in small communities as it is in large towns and cities. The EPA and water treatment industry consider the coming years a crucial period for American drinking water safety as pipes and treatment plants built in the mid-20th century reach the end of their useful lives.

“We’re in this really stupid situation where, because of neglect of the infrastructure, we’re spending our scarce resources on putting our fingers in the dike, if you will, taking care of these emergencies, but we’re not doing anything to think about the future in terms of what we should be doing,” said Jeffrey Griffiths, a former member of the Drinking Water Committee at the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.

As water systems age, 63 percent of Americans are now concerned a “great deal” about drinking water pollution, according to a Gallup poll released in March that showed such worries at their highest level since 2001. Drinking water pollution has long been a top environmental concern for Americans – above air pollution and climate change, according to the same poll.

Many of the nation’s largest city systems violated EPA safety standards during the past decade, potentially exposing tens of millions of people to dangerous contaminants. New York City’s system, which serves 8.3 million people, failed standards meant to protect its water from viruses and bacteria two times during that period. The system still hasn’t addressed its most recent violation from February for not building a cover for one of its water reservoirs, according to EPA records.

The problems extend to the country’s large suburbs. Tacoma, Washington’s, system failed to meet a federally mandated timeline for installing a treatment plant meant to kill the parasite cryptosporidium. Chris McMeen, deputy superintendent for the Seattle suburb’s system, which serves 317,600 people, said the pathogen has never been found in dangerous levels in the city’s water. The system was also cited for failing to test for dozens of chemicals during the past decade.

In Waukesha, Wisconsin, 18 miles west of Milwaukee, decades of radium contamination from the city’s underground aquifer prompted officials to draft a proposal to draw water from Lake Michigan for its 71,000 residents. The Great Water Alliance, a $200 million project, is expected to be completed by 2023.

Thousands of rural towns have the most problems because communities often lack the expertise and resources to provide safe drinking water.

In several Southwestern states, 2 million people received groundwater tainted with arsenic, radium or fluoride from their local water systems, with many exposed to these chemicals for years before hundreds of small, low-income communities could afford to filter them out. Some still haven’t cleaned up their water.

Contamination in rural areas from these naturally occurring chemicals, found in the bedrock of aquifers, made Texas, Oklahoma and California the top states for EPA drinking water quality violations during the past decade.

“Sometimes it’s orange, sometimes it’s green, sometimes it’s brown,” said Melissa Regeon, a lifelong resident of Brady, Texas, which is trying to secure money for water system upgrades to filter out the radium in its water. “You just never know. It looks horrible.”

Small water systems in California’s San Joaquin Valley have battled both farming pollution and natural contamination from arsenic for years. High levels of nitrate from farm runoff and groundwater rock are linked to low oxygen levels in babies and cancer. Those levels have been found in systems serving 317,000 people during the past decade in the valley, 10,000 square miles of concentrated farming in the state’s center.

The crash of the coal mining industry in southern West Virginia has left hundreds of residents in charge of their own small water systems – some of which date to the Civil War. Residents in the mountains of Wyoming and Fayette counties say they are getting too old to maintain water treatment plants and pipes, and they lack funding to carry out proper treatment on the water, which comes from springs in old coal mines.

“What is pretty clear is that a lot of these small communities, especially in lower-income areas, have a real problem ensuring compliance or even treating the water,” said Erik Olson, director of the health program at the National Resources Defense Council. “A lot of these smaller communities, they don’t even have the wherewithal to apply for available funding.”

Drinking water quality is often dependent on the wealth and racial makeup of communities, according to News21’s analysis. Small, poor communities and neglected urban areas are sometimes left to fend for themselves with little help from state and federal governments.

In recent years, drinking water crises in minority communities, like Flint, Michigan, and East Chicago, Indiana, made national news when old pipes leached lead into the water of thousands for months before state and federal officials responded. In Texas, Corpus Christi’s water system shut down for nearly four days in December because of a chemical spill at an asphalt plant, closing schools and businesses throughout the predominantly Hispanic city.

“These are not isolated incidences, the Flints of the world or the Corpus Christis or the East Chicagos,” said Manuel Teodoro, a researcher at Texas A&M University who co-authored a report on the disproportionate effect of drinking water quality problems on poor minority communities.

“These incidents are getting media attention in a way that they didn’t a few years ago, but the patterns that we see in the data suggest that problems with drinking water quality are not just randomly distributed in the population – that there is a systemic bias out there.”

Many residents of Tallulah, Louisiana, where 77 percent of the population is black and 40 percent lives in poverty, have turned to bottled water as their crumbling utility failed to keep water free of toxic disinfectant byproducts. Systems serving thousands of others in predominantly black communities around the state have struggled to keep these carcinogens out of their taps.

Many Latinos along the U.S.-Mexico border who live in unincorporated low-income rural areas lack the resources to maintain their systems or don’t have access to treated water.

Although the EPA sets minimum drinking water standards, almost all state governments are in charge of testing requirements and operator licensing, creating a maze of regulations and protections that differ from state to state.

A 2011 Government Accountability Office report found the EPA’s database isn’t complete, with some states incorrectly reporting or failing to report many violations. The EPA also hasn’t created a rule for a new contaminant since 2000.

Millions of Americans are also exposed to suspect chemicals the EPA and state agencies don’t regulate. Two of these chemicals, perfluorinated compounds PFOA and PFOS, remain unregulated after decades of use as an ingredient in firefighting foam, Teflon and other consumer products. These perfluorinated compounds have been linked to low birth weights in children, cancer and liver tissue damage, according to the EPA.

“America’s drinking water remains among the safest in the world and protecting drinking water is EPA’s top priority,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement to News21. “More than 90 percent of the country’s drinking water systems meet all of EPA’s health-based drinking water standards every day throughout the year.”

The EPA did not make any officials available for an interview.

While most Americans get their water from local utilities, the 15 million homes with private wells, especially in rural areas, are vulnerable to the same contamination issues but are not required to install treatment systems. The limited data available shows wells in many parts of the country draw groundwater containing dangerous levels of toxins from naturally occurring elements and man-made sources.

Small systems, big problems

The majority of local water systems serve fewer than 5,000 people, accounting for a majority of the 97,800 instances when regulators cited water systems for having too many contaminants during the past decade.

For example, Wolfforth and Brady, two small communities in western and central Texas, received the most citations for water quality in the U.S.

Wolfforth, where the tallest structure is a blue and white water tower, racked up 362 violations in 10 years for arsenic and fluoride in its groundwater source. Since arsenic can cause cancer and fluoride can weaken bones, the contaminants required a rapid solution.

The city of 4,400 is rapidly growing like much of suburban Texas, but City Manager Darrell Newsom said it still took time to find funding for the $8.5 million water treatment project.

“There’s a lot of angst about how much money we spent, and there was a tremendous amount of angst about how long it took,” Newsom said. “It was just so long and so much money that we had tied up for so long.”

Even though the system is running, the city will send water notices to residents until the system doesn’t violate the arsenic standard for a full year. Many continue to buy bottled water instead of drinking from the tap.

“We need some more clean water,” said Shreejana Malla, who co-owns a convenience store in Wolfforth with her husband. “So I would want them to, as soon as possible, to get the clean water. I don’t feel comfortable taking a shower, but we’ve got to take a shower.”

The city got a loan and raised water rates about 30 percent to pay for the upgrades, Newsom said.

Continued in Part 2