The debate over tap water vs. bottled water will probably go on for quite some time. Many people believe that by purchasing bottled water, they are consuming better quality water than that which comes from the tap. Others argue that the environmental impact of bottled water is massive, and that bottled water is no safer than tap water. A report earlier this year from the Government Accounting Office claims that because public water supplies are regulated by the Safe Water Drinking Act and those regulations are enforced by the EPA, they are therefore safer than bottled water, which is regulated by the FDA– and we all know what a wonderful job the FDA has been doing. But a new investigative report by the New York Times calls this conclusion into question.
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.
However, the vast majority of those polluters have escaped punishment. State officials have repeatedly ignored obvious illegal dumping, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which can prosecute polluters when states fail to act, has often declined to intervene.
The most amazing part of the story is that many companies were reporting their violations as they are required to do. The problem is that both the states and the EPA have almost completely abdicated their responsibility to ensure that companies make corrections.
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.
The Times story points to inadequate funding for enforcement as one of the primary reasons for the lapses. Although funding has not been cut, per se, flat budgets are increasingly stretched to cover more polluters. From the article: “In New York, for example, the number of regulated polluters has almost doubled to 19,000 in the last decade, but the number of inspections each year has remained about the same.” A secondary reason given for the lack of enforcement is the existence of powerful lobbying interests, such as the coal mining industry, that block meaningful enforcement. Quoting a source from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection:
“We are outmanned and overwhelmed, and that’s exactly how industry wants us,” said one employee who requested anonymity for fear of being fired. “It’s been obvious for decades that we’re not on top of things, and coal companies have earned billions relying on that.”
The situation wasn’t any different at a national level:
Enforcement lapses were particularly bad under the administration of President George W. Bush, employees say. “For the last eight years, my hands have been tied,” said one E.P.A. official who requested anonymity for fear of retribution. “We were told to take our clean water and clean air cases, put them in a box, and lock it shut. Everyone knew polluters were getting away with murder. But these polluters are some of the biggest campaign contributors in town, so no one really cared if they were dumping poisons into streams.”
The full article paints a disturbing picture of regulators or were unable or unwilling to confront major polluters, and is well worth a read. A supplemental portion allows you to check results of the Times’ investigation in your local area. A check of my area, Omaha, showed 35 facilites and a total of 184 violations. The total of fines levied as a result? $0. Interestingly, the top 10 polluters in the Omaha area were responsible for 157 of those violations, while 16 facilities reported no violations at all.