Senate hearing focuses on EPA’s efforts to protect the nation’s drinking water
The water for more than 49 million Americans has been contaminated with illegal concentrations of dangerous pollutants since 2004, according to a New York Times report.
The pollutants include chemicals like arsenic and the dry cleaning solvent, tetrachloroethylene, as well as radioactive substances like uranium. The article and its findings were mentioned repeatedly during a Senate hearing Tuesday where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was grilled about its efforts to protect the nation’s drinking water supply.
According to the New York Times analysis of federal records, more than 20 percent of the nation’s 54,700 water treatment systems over the last five years have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. But fewer than 6 percent of the water systems that broke the law faced fines or punishment from state or federal officials, including from the EPA.
Several hundred of the water systems illegal contamination persisted for years.
While it is unclear how many illnesses in the U.S. stem from contaminated drinking water, up to 19 million Americans may fall ill each year due to parasites, viruses and bacteria in drinking water alone, the New York Times reports. Also, the rates of certain cancer types like breast and prostate cancer have risen over the past 30 years, with research indicating that they are probably tied to pollutants like those found in drinking water.
A Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing Tuesday focused on federal drinking water programs, with hearing members questioning EPA officials about their enforcement of drinking water safety laws. The EPA used the occasion to announce a new plan to improve the quality of drinking water in schools and small communities.
Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) quoted the New York Times article during the hearing while noting that there are more than 140 potentially dangerous chemicals found in U.S. drinking water that the EPA does not regulate, including gasoline additives, pesticides and rocket fuel.
“It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that you should not be drinking rocket fuel,” he said.
Peter Silva, the EPA’s assistant administrator for Water, said the EPA plans to focus more closely on small U.S. water systems that service fewer than 10,000 people, where 96 percent of all health-based violations occur. But he also argued that the vast majority of Americans receive water that is safe to drink.
Cynthia Giles, the EPA’s assistant administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, announced a new enforcement policy to focus on repeat offenders of the Safe Water Drinking Act and institute “an escalating enforcement model … to return the systems to compliance in a timely manner.”
The EPA plans met a chilly reception in the hearing, according to the New York Times. Lawmakers criticized the plans for their lack of details and weak assistance and enforcement provisions, according to Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
“We need enforcement now,” Boxer said.
Read more about the hearing from the New York Times’ Interactive map of Water Pollution. Also check out Circle of Blue’s previous coverage of water contamination court cases.