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September 14, 2009

Water Woes

There's a lot that's discouraging in part two of the NYT's "Toxic Waters" series. Choosing one's lowlights from a list that includes children whose teeth have been eaten away by contaminated water or who get rashes from their bathwater (not to mention cancer), or whole communities (in America, mind you) that need to have fresh water trucked in is an unpleasant task. Things are, it seems, surprisingly bad and getting worse:
[I]n 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.

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.
Indeed, the NYT offers a handy map-based guide to water polluters in every state. But you don't really need the map -- the dots of individual polluters are so dense that they make a state-shaped blob of pollution. Sigh.

But to me the most discouraging development in the article is learning that, even now, top government officials seem more intent on making excuses than on making change. Here's EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson:
"Do critics have a good and valid point when they say improvements need to be made? Absolutely," Ms. Jackson said. "But I think we need to be careful not to do that by scaring the bejesus out of people into thinking that, boy, are things horrible. What it requires is attention, and I'm going to give it that attention."
You know what, Ms. Jackson? This article scares the bejesus out of me and it seems pretty clear that things are horrible -- I don't want attention, I want action. Where's the sense of urgency?

It's lacking because we seem to have governments at the state and federal level that walk on eggshells around corporations. But I don't think it's only because of corporate campaign contributions -- it due to a far more pernicious reason than that. Ronald Reagan trained a generation of Americans that government was part of the problem. And now even Democrats are mindful of rocking the boat. The only burden that seems to matter is the corporate burden -- we can act, as long as it's okay with the affected industry. It's the "opt-in" approach to regulation. It worked so well in finance and health care. Why not apply it to those pesky environmental laws as well.

But action is also lacking because Americans just aren't making much noise on these kinds of issues. Oh, sure, it's easy to find people blind with fury over death panels and our Kenyan-born President. But clean air and water? Meh. I do think it odd that so many people in this country operate under the delusion that a corporation would act in anyone's interest but its own. Yet that does seems to be the assumption of many -- how else to explain the apathy?

I once heard it said that no true, major structural reform ever happens until people get out into the street to demand it. The teabaggers were out certainly, for all the good it will do them. But where are the thousands rallying to get heavy metals and industrial chemicals out of our drinking water? Without that kind of presure, backroom dealing and public/private backscratching win the day.

The NYT has documented nothing else but a[nother] total regulatory failure -- with most of the backsliding occurring, of course, over the last 8 years. Where Al Gore offered the social security lockbox, George Bush gave us the environmental lockbox -- the place where anonymously quoted EPA officials were instructed to put their clean air and water cases so that polluters campaign contributors could remain unpunished. Ugly, ugly stuff. No wonder no Bush-era EPA administrator had the guts to go on the record for the article.

It certainly feels like we're farther than ever from addressing the biggest challenges that face us. Until government (not to mention the media) decides that its job is to be a true counterweight to, rather than an enabler of, corporate American excess, we'll be living in a dirty, unhealthy country.

Photo by gambier20 used under a CC license

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Blogger Peter Schmidt said...

Working on neurological disorders, I find that many of the contaminants that we worry about finding in our water are neurotoxins -- especially in places where drinking water is piped in from farming communities. I have long ago come to the conclusion that drinking water needs additional filtration.

Blogger Bix said...

This was another tough article to read. But I'll still congratulate the NYTs for reporting it.

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