Monday, September 14, 2009

US Clean Water Act violated 500,000 times, FOI request reveals

Clean water laws are neglected, at a cost in suffering
The New York Times, 13 Sept 2009

Almost four decades ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to force polluters to disclose the toxins they dump into waterways and to give regulators the power to fine or jail offenders. States have passed pollution statutes of their own. But in recent years, violations of the Clean Water Act have risen steadily across the nation, an extensive review of water pollution records by The New York Times found.

In the last five years alone, chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other workplaces have violated water pollution laws more than half a million times. The violations range from failing to report emissions to dumping toxins at concentrations regulators say might contribute to cancer, birth defects and other illnesses.
The Times obtained hundreds of thousands of water pollution records through Freedom of Information Act requests to every state and the E.P.A., and compiled a national database of water pollution violations that is more comprehensive than those maintained by states or the E.P.A. (For an interactive version, which can show violations in any community, visit

In addition, The Times interviewed more than 250 state and federal regulators, water-system managers, environmental advocates and scientists.

That research 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.
The Times’s research also shows that last year, 40 percent of the nation’s community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act at least once, according to an analysis of E.P.A. data. Those violations ranged from failing to maintain proper paperwork to allowing carcinogens into tap water. More than 23 million people received drinking water from municipal systems that violated a health-based standard.

In some cases, people got sick right away. In other situations, pollutants like chemicals, inorganic toxins and heavy metals can accumulate in the body for years or decades before they cause problems. Some of the most frequently detected contaminants have been linked to cancer, birth defects and neurological disorders.

Records analyzed by The Times indicate that the Clean Water Act has been violated more than 506,000 times since 2004, by more than 23,000 companies and other facilities, according to reports submitted by polluters themselves. Companies sometimes test what they are dumping only once a quarter, so the actual number of days when they broke the law is often far higher. And some companies illegally avoid reporting their emissions, say officials, so infractions go unrecorded.
Some violations are relatively minor. But about 60 percent of the polluters were deemed in “significant noncompliance” — meaning their violations were the most serious kind, like dumping cancer-causing chemicals or failing to measure or report when they pollute.

Finally, the Times’s research shows that fewer than 3 percent of Clean Water Act violations resulted in fines or other significant punishments by state officials. And the E.P.A. has often declined to prosecute polluters or force states to strengthen their enforcement by threatening to withhold federal money or take away powers the agency has delegated to state officials.
Full NY Times story here.

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