EPA: 20% of US exposed to unsafe drinking water
A team of young reporters from News21 has added flesh to a report by the Environmental Protection Agency that concluded 63 million people in the United States have been exposed to potentially contaminated drinking water over the past 10 years.
No surprise that large numbers of the 680,000 violations of safe drinking water rules were discovered in economically poor places populated mostly by people of color. Naturally, babies and immunity-challenged individuals are most at risk:
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. […]
“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.
The good news is that nearly 90 percent of the nation’s community drinking water systems do meet all 90 of the EPA’s drinking water rules. Small comfort to those who live elsewhere. Those systems that fail to meet the standards distribute water to tens of millions of people. A majority of them are people of color and low income. The cost to bring all drinking water systems in the nation up to snuff? It will be $384 billion, according to the EPA. Or a bit more than a half-year’s worth of Pentagon spending.
Two major issues: Millions of miles of underground lead pipes and some systems are more than a century old. In West Virginia, there are places where water systems date to the Civil War era.
Big city systems—like New York City’s—are included in the roster of violators. But most of them have the revenue to upgrade their water systems if they have the political will. Small communities, on the other hand, rarely have the economic wherewithal or the political clout when they are communities of color to improve theirs even if they are desperate to do so:
“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.
We’ve continued to operate the nation’s crucial infrastructure under the myopic “deferred maintenance” approach, pushing repairs and upgrade to some unannounced date in the future. This, of course, means extra costs when a system breaks down altogether and repairs and upgrades must be abandoned for total replacement. And there’s the issue of potentially lethal consequences for delaying the provision of a fix.
America is rich. There is simply no excuse for this situation. And it’s no solace to hear officials claim that our drinking water systems are safer than those of most other nations. That’s because it’s baloney. The World Health Organization ranks the United States 64th in rural drinking water quality. If and when we have a Congress with a brain and a vision, funding fixes for these substandard drinking water systems ought to be near the top of the list for infrastructure spending.
(Originally appeared at DailyKos.)