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Why We Can't Fix The Drinking Water Crisis in The United States

Analies Dyjak @ Friday, June 12, 2020 at 8:29 am -0400

Analies Dyjak, M.A.  |  Policy Nerd

As communities across the United States continue to deal with contaminated drinking water, the public is beginning to realize that lawmakers might not be the ones standing in the way of regulation. Municipal and public water utility providers are not equipped to deal with new drinking water standards, and have historically lobbied against them. 

Why Are Public Water Utilities Against PFAS Regulation?

According to a report by Bloomberg Law, water utilities are the most vocal opponents of PFAS regulation. Regulating PFAS would mean that water utilities would be legally required to reduce PFAS levels to meet state or federal standards. Most of the recently proposed PFAS legislation requires public water utilities to pay for this. Removing PFAS is expensive, and requires treatment equipment that most municipalities do not currently own. A water board or utility provider has the less-than-desirable task of telling the public that because of this, that their taxes are going to increase. They will also be to blame for allowing PFAS and other contaminants in drinking water without notifying the public.

Municipal Water Utilities and the Race Against Time 

Municipal water utilities have the most to lose when it comes to new drinking water regulations. When the public retroactively finds out that they’ve been drinking contaminated water for years, municipal water providers take a majority of the blame. This results in a complete loss of trust by an entire tax base. As the public become aware of PFAS in tap water, the number of lawsuits against public utilities will continue to increase. Publicly owned utilities fail when both of these factors come to fruition.

Aging infrastructure is the top priority for most municipal water utilities in the United States. This includes replacing lead-containing pipes, water main leaks, and tackling already difficult-to-remove contaminants like lead, disinfection byproducts, and more. Many municipalities allocate a majority of their resources to replacing lead-containing infrastructure. For example, Newark, New Jersey, is currently in the midst of a $115 million lead service line replacement program. This program doesn’t even remove all lead pipes from the city, just the line that connects to your homes plumbing. The city of Chicago has historically had problems with lead Water commissioner for the city of Chicago estimates that a lead line replacement would cost anywhere between $4 billion and $8 billion. In short, public water utilities are not currently prioritizing PFAS and other contaminants in drinking water.

Who Is To Blame to Water Pollution?

Major companies such as 3M, DuPont, and Chemours took advantage of the lack of water quality regulations for decades. Now that pollution has made its way into drinking water across the United States, it’s time to figure out who pays. Public water utilities are set up to fail. They're underfunded, and given the impossible task of distributing clean drinking water on a tight budget. Additionally, laws such as Superfund/CERCLA, put a large financial burden on municipalities. 

Our Take:

More often than not, municipality water departments are not responsible for contaminating the drinking water. Chemical polluters and the Governments lack of proactive lawmaking have allowed tap water to become so contaminated. We believe that municipalities should notify residents as soon as they become of water contamination, whether it's in their best interest of not. 

Other Article You Might Enjoy:
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This Week In Water: June 5, 2020

Analies Dyjak @ Thursday, June 4, 2020 at 2:22 pm -0400

Analies Dyjak, M.A.  |  Policy Nerd

EPA Threatens States' Ability To Protect Drinking Water

EPA introduced amendments to Section 401 of the Clean Water Act that aim to limit states' ability to protect water. The amendment will put a statutory timeline on project-vetting in regards to environmental impacts. Water quality, especially municipal drinking water supplies, could be impacted by this rule. For the full story, click here.

New Study: Exposure to PFAS May Cause Early Menopause

A recent study out of the University of Michigan has found that exposure to PFAS chemicals could cause early menopause in women. The research found that women with high levels of PFAS in their blood reached menopause two years earlier than those with lower levels of PFAS. The researchers stated that early menopause can impact the cardiovascular system, bone health, and quality of life. Click here to read more.

New PFAS Chemical Found in New Jersey 

A replacement chemical for PFNA has been detected near a polymer factory in West Deptford, New Jersey. Scientists believe that the Solvay Specialty Polymers created this chemical after state officials determined that PFNA was extremely toxic. This is not the first time that manufactures have created equally as harmful replacement chemicals. Read more.


EPA Threatens States' Ability To Protect Drinking Water

Analies Dyjak @ Thursday, June 4, 2020 at 11:00 am -0400

 Analies Dyjak, M.A.  |  Policy Nerd

The Clean Water Act (CWA) was created in 1972 to set important water quality standards for the nations waterways. One of the most important portions of the CWA is Section 401, which limits the type and quantity of allowable pollutants in jurisdictional waterways. Section 401 states that you must obtain a permit when considering the addition of a pollutant into navigable water, creating an important barrier to pollution. The EPA has recently amended Section 401 to make it more difficult for states to enforce clean water restrictions. 

What Is The Environmental Protection Agency's New Rule and Why Is It Bad?

The newly proposed final rule will make it more difficult for states to block projects that are inherently bad for water. A major stipulation of this amendment is that it will create a statutory deadline so that a final action must be taken within one year of receiving a certification/permit. This rule will rush projects without proper environmental oversight and due diligence. Re-certification takes time and taxpayer money, so the one-year statutory deadline is a very powerful move. 

The Uphill Battle for Clean Water

According to EPA, portions of the Clean Water Act are standing in the way of the administration's ability to uphold Executive Order 13868: Promoting Energy Infrastructure and Economic Growth. EPA claims that states’ have historically abused Section 401 of the Clean Water Act to address things unrelated to water, such as political rhetoric and climate change. On May 15, 2020, New York used Section 401 to block a pipeline that would have transported natural gas from Pennsylvania to New York City. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation cited that the pipeline would violate Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, by threatening the state's water quality. In 2017, Washington used Section 401 to block construction permits for a terminal that would have transported coal to countries in Asia. Washington’s Department of Ecology cited potential threats to the Columbia River, and denied the necessary permits. The EPA believes that the motive for states to deny such permits have nothing to do with drinking water. Whether this true or not, states have historically had the discretion when and how to provide permits, until now. 

How Does This Rule Impact People on City Water?

These changes may affect people who are on a public water if your city’s water supply is located near a proposed pipeline project. The one-year restriction also rushes projects without a full environmental vetting process, including how the project may impact your tap water. Once a spill or pipeline leak has been detected, a municipal supply has most likely already been contaminated. This applies to city source water that is from both surface water and groundwater.

How Does This Rule Impact Private Well Users?

Private wells users are entirely on their own for determining the safety of their water, and are often impacted the most by pipeline projects. The viral videos of homeowners lighting their water on fire are the result of contaminated wells by leaking pipelines pipes, fracking, and other projects that will be supported as a result of this new rule. 

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BREAKING: New DuPont Lawsuit

Analies Dyjak @ Wednesday, May 27, 2020 at 3:19 pm -0400

Analies Dyjak, M.A.  |  Policy Nerd

The environment effects of industrial chemicals and explosives manufactured as early 1880 still impact drinking water today. Chemical manufacturer, DuPont, has been polluting natural resources and drinking water for decades and has received numerous lawsuits as a result. PFAS are at the heart of a litany of lawsuits filed against DuPont and other companies like it. However, people are still being exposed to high levels of toxic and carcinogenic contaminants everyday in the United States. 

Who Is Responsible for PFAS Contamination In Drinking Water?

Part of the reason no one has figured out who is to blame for PFAS contamination comes down to a central set of ambiguities: 
  1. Should the government be held liable for allowing harmful chemicals to be manufactured? 
  2. Should chemical manufacturers be held liable for producing and contaminating the environment with knowingly dangerous contaminants?

The question of liability is a question for the courts. In the interim, it’s important to consider how those impacted are dealing with the effects. 

DuPont vs. The Federal Government

DuPont is doing everything in their power to place blame elsewhere for endangering the lives of millions of Americans. Their new strategy however, involves pointing their finger at the Federal Government.The state of New Jersey sued DuPont in early 2019 after PFAS and other harmful contaminants were detected in drinking water, groundwater, soil, and other natural resources around nearby chemical plants. DuPont has since asserted that the company was upholding federal defense contracts when producing and distributing millions of pounds of chemicals. DuPont stated that in a variety of contracts, the Federal Government requested millions of pounds of chemicals during World War 1 and World War II. DuPont was a major recipient of these federal contracts and that at the time, the future consequences of producing such chemicals were not top of mind. Regardless the outcome of this particular suit, DuPont will still be held liable for other PFAS contamination not associated with these federal contracts.

PFAS Contamination in New Jersey 

Four sites in New Jersey are at the heart of this lawsuit. Some of these sites began producing industrial chemicals and explosives as early as 1880. Now in 2020, these chemicals are still wreaking havoc on communities throughout New Jersey. These sites include Pompton Lakes, Parlin - Sayerville, Repauno - Gibbstown, and Chambers Works - Carney’s Point. PFAS are of particular concern at the Parlin and Chambers Works sites. 

What Is EPA Doing About PFAS?

The EPA plays an important role in how the U.S. will address PFAS contamination in drinking water. EPA is responsible for cleaning up sites where PFAS have been detected, as well as reducing the threat of exposure to humans. For the latter, EPA must set federal standards by determining the levels at which humans can be exposed without becoming ill. EPA has acknowledged that PFAS are harmful and can cause a variety of negative health effects. In November of 2018, a draft toxicological report stated that GenX, which is a PFAS-variation, is considered a “probable human carcinogen.” Additionally, EPA has stated that exposure to PFAS has been associated with: cancer, low infant birth weights, thyroid hormone disruption, and effects on the immune system. PFAS still remain unregulated.

When Will PFAS Be Regulated?

PFAS are still in the very early regulatory stages. Momentum has picked up as recently as February, 2020 when EPA proposed two regulations for PFOA and PFOS. While PFOA and PFOS are the most ubiquitous in tap water, The Food and Drug Administration has determined that there are almost 5,000 different types of PFAS present in the environment. It is reductive and myopic to limit the formulation of policy to PFOA and PFOS when addressing PFAS as an overall threat. It’s also important to note that just because EPA has come to a regulatory determination, does not mean that a regulation will come to fruition. Just last week EPA decided after a 19-year regulatory process not to regulate perchlorate in tap water. EPA has a history of not following through with regulations pertaining to the Safe Drinking Water Act.

States Action on PFAS

Other states involved in major PFAS litigation, including New Jersey, Minnesota, and Michigan, are being handed settlements that do not properly address the scope of damages to the environment and human health. Even in the recent Dupont/New Jersey suit, the state sued Dupont for damages to natural resources without once acknowledging impacts to human health. We wrote an article highlighting how some states are addressing PFAS contamination. 

Our Take: 

Lawsuits and regulatory action are just a small part of a much larger problem, and any positive outcomes will only take place in the distant future. Efforts should be focused on addressing immediate PFAS exposure in drinking water. Additionally, people should be notified if and when PFAS contamination becomes a problem in their community. The question of who is liable for mitigation and remediation will be left to the courts.

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BREAKING: EPA to Pull Regulation for Tap Water Contaminant

Analies Dyjak @ Monday, May 18, 2020 at 11:05 pm -0400

Analies Dyjak, M.A.  |  Policy Analyst

Another drinking water contaminant has failed to make its way through the Environmental Protection Agency's grueling regulatory process. On Thursday, May 14, 2020, EPA made the decision to no longer pursue a perchlorate regulation in tap water. This perchlorate regulation would have been EPA's first proposed standard in 24 years. 

What Is Perchlorate?

Perchlorate is a colorless, odorless salt, that is both naturally-occurring and man-made. Perchlorate is used in rocket propellants, munitions, fireworks, and flares. According to the ATSDR, about 90% of man-made perchlorate is manufactured for defense and aerospace industries. Naturally-occurring perchlorate can be found in soils in the Southwestern United States. Perchlorate find its way into drinking water through runoff and other means of stormwater pollution. Because perchlorate is not regulated very well, rules for disposal and mitigation are relatively weak. Unlike PFAS, perchlorate is not ubiquitous in tap water across the United States. 

How Does Perchlorate Impact Health?

Exposure to perchlorate can impact the thyroid glands ability to take up iodine. EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) has indicated that perchlorate is not carcinogenic to humans, but does state that it’s known to cause negative impacts to the endocrine system. Long term perchlorate exposure is also known to lower thyroid hormone levels, which can impact the cardiovascular system, pulmonary system, liver function, and more. Scientific literature regarding how perchlorate impacts humans is not sufficient. In addition, health and regulatory bodies have stopped prioritizing perchlorate research in recent years, making EPA's decision even more suspicious.

Why Is Perchlorate Still Allowed In Drinking Water? 

In short, perchlorate is extremely expensive to remove. EPA must consider the cost of removal with the benefit to public health when determining a regulation. EPA does this for all drinking water contaminants - the most famous and controversial being the arsenic standard. Most municipalities in the U.S. can not afford the technology necessary to get rid of many harmful contaminants at the distribution level. This includes contaminants like arsenic, PFAS, chromium 6, perchlorate, and more. 

How Does EPA Determine Which Chemicals Get Removed From Drinking Water?

EPA has an exhaustive process for regulating contaminants in tap water. We wrote an in-depth article about the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) and the Contaminant Candidate List (CCL). In short, a list of 30 contaminants gets whittled down so that EPA can decide whether to regulate or not. The major factor that goes into a “regulatory determination” is the cost. EPA must weigh the cost of removing a contaminant at the municipal level with the benefits to public health. “Unfunded mandates” are difficult to justify and doing so is the equivalent of forcing a community to pay for something they can’t afford.

Regulatory Case Study: Perchlorate

EPA first introduced a regulation for perchlorate in 2001, during EPA’s first Contaminant Candidate List (CCL). A CCL listing indicates that federal agencies have concerns about the health impacts associated with a contaminant found in drinking water. Further, CCL is a refined list that is composed of the top contaminants that likely threaten the nation's drinking water. A CLL listing also indicates the need for further research and to determine if a regulation is even financially possible. 

Our Take:

The failure to regulate perchlorate was a surprise to our team of Water Nerds. The decision made by EPA last week was especially confusing because Perchlorate has been listed on three out of the four most recent CCL's since 2001. As recent as 2019, health and regulatory agencies believed that perchlorate posed a big enough threat to warrant a regulation. The only reason that perchlorate wasn’t included in the most recent UCMR list is most likely because so many other new contaminants were added, including various PFAS chemicals.

Unfortunately, perchlorate is another example of the UCMR process and its inability to regulate contaminants found in drinking water. EPA stated that a regulation was not necessary because perchlorate is no longer a problem in drinking water. Whether that’s true or not, testing and monitoring for perchlorate has reduced so significantly in recent years that we find it hard to believe their claims. As previously stated, perchlorate has been included in 3 out of 4 UCRM CCL lists - indicating that regulators and public health officials believe that it’s still a problem. 

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