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article imageMillions of Americans Drinking Contaminated Water

By Bill Lindner     Dec 10, 2009 in Environment
Since 2004, water provided to more than 49 million people has been found to contain illegal amounts of chemicals like arsenic or radioactive substances like uranium, as well as dangerous bacteria that is often found in sewage.
A New York Times analysis of federal data reportedly reveals that more than 20 percent of the nation's water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) over the past five years. Drinking water contaminants have been linked by studies to millions of illnesses each year within the United States.
The Safe Drinking Water Act requires communities to deliver safe tap water to local residents, but since 2004, water provided to more than 49 million people has been found to contain illegal amounts of chemicals like arsenic or radioactive substances like uranium, as well as dangerous bacteria that is often found in sewage.
Regulators were informed of the violations as they occurred, but records show that fewer than 6 percent of the water systems who broke the law were ever fined or punished by state or federal officials, including those at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), who is ultimately responsible for the enforcement of those standards of the nation's 54,700 water systems.
Some of the drinking water violations were one-time events that probably didn't pose much risk, but for hundreds of the violations, the illegal contamination of drinking water persisted for years. Unsurprisingly, the political leadership of the past eight years failed to protect our health and the environment but this year the EPA announced a major overhaul of enforcement of the Clean Water Act (CWA).
SDWA Violations have Occurred in Parts of Every State
The Clean Water Act, according to the EPA, "employs a variety of regulatory and non-regulatory tools to sharply reduce direct pollutant discharges into waterways, finance municipal waste-water treatment facilities, and manage polluted runoff. These tools are employed to achieve the broader goal of restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation's waters so that they can support "the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and recreation in and on the water."
SDWA violations have reportedly occurred in parts of every state.
In Ramsey, NJ, drinking water tests since 2004 have detected illegal concentrations of arsenic and tetrachloroethylene, both of which have been linked to cancer. In New York state, 205 water systems have delivered tap water that contained illegal amounts of bacteria since 2004.
Federal data reveals that Ramsey, NJ was not fined for its water violations and in New York, only 3 of the 205 water systems were penalized for bacteria violations. Current and former government officials say enforcing the SDWA has not been a federal priority.
The EPA and the Justice Department have been reluctant to bring actions against municipalities because they're afraid the fines would ultimately be paid by local taxpayers. A half-dozen current and former EPA officials -- who requested anonymity when talking to the NY Times due to fear of reprisals -- tried to get the agency to enforce the drinking-water law, but couldn't find much support. Because top agency officials wanted big headlines and million-dollar settlements, many drinking-water cases were shut down quickly.
Dangerous Contaminants Linked to Diseases like Cancer
According to the NY Times report, the majority of drinking water violations since 2004 have occurred at water systems that serve fewer than 20,000 residents, where resources and managerial expertise are often in short supply.
It's not known how many American illnesses are linked to contaminated drinking water but many of the dangerous contaminants that are supposed to be regulated by the SDWA have been tied to diseases like cancer that can take years to develop.
Scientific research reveals that as many as 19 million Americans may fall ill each year because of the parasites, viruses and bacteria in drinking water and certain types of cancer -- breast and prostate cancer -- have risen over the past 30 years, most likely due to the pollutants found in drinking water.
The NY Times only analyzed situations where residents were exposed to dangerous contaminants in their drinking water, not violations involving paperwork or other minor issues.
EPA Regulators Skeptical of Change
Since 2005 more than three million Americans have been exposed to drinking water contaminated with illegal concentrations of arsenic and radioactive elements, also linked to cancer at small doses. The amount of radium detected in drinking water was 2,000 percent higher than the legal limit is some areas.
Fewer than 8 percent of water systems that violated arsenic and radioactive standards were fined or punished. The majority of situations were handled by state regulators using informal methods, such as providing technical assistance, to help systems that violated the rules according to an EPA statement.
But EPA data also shows that many systems remained out of compliance, despite aid being offered and there is no record that over a quarter of the water systems that violated the arsenic and radioactivity standards were ever contacted by a regulator, even when the water systems sent in paperwork revealing their violations.
Some mid-level EPA regulators are skeptical that any change will occur if reform is announced since there has been no accountability -- as with many facets of the past eight years -- and the same people who told regulators to ignore SDWA violations are still running the divisions.
More about Drinking water, Contamination, Epa, Safe drinking water act, Clean water act
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