The Associated Press has analyzed a decade of Environmental Protection Agency data and found that tests at thousands of American schools had shown the drinking water to be contaminated, with the water at some schools hitting unsafe levels in as many as 20 separate inspections. As part of the investigation, the AP provided an interactive map with which you can search and sort violations in your area. Although some children have become sick and some schools have resorted to bottled water, the AP found that the contaminants are generally not present in levels that would harm adults.
Creek near an abandoned mercury mine in the California ghost town of New Idria. Photo by mlhradio via Flickr
The AP’s Jason Dearen found that the government has only tried to clean up a handful of the hundreds of abandoned mercury mines in California’s coastal mountains.
According to Dearen, “mercury mines are the biggest sources of the pollution in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the largest estuary on the Pacific Coast.” At least 100,000 impoverished people are eating fish tainted with levels of toxins beyond EPA guidelines, Dearen found.
“Records and interviews show that federal regulators have conducted about 10 cleanups at major mercury mines with mixed results, while dozens of sites still foul the air, soil and water.”
In the latest installment of The New York Times‘ Toxic Waters series, Charles Duhigg says that, for this investigation, the Times “compiled a national database of water pollution violations that is more comprehensive than those maintained by states or the E.P.A.” (That database can be found here.)
In that database, Duhigg found serious violations across the country, from wells tainted by wet manure used to fertilize fields to seashores soiled by runoff from overwhelmed sewer systems, and discovered that while 60 percent of Clean Water Act violations were judged to be serious, only 3 percent “resulted in fines or significant punishment.”
The investigation found that agencies at every level of government had contributed to what amounts to a national failure to enforce the Clean Water Act. The causes of this failure are every bit as diverse as its manifestations, with lack of agency funding and political pressure from powerful industries being the worst culprits.
Duhigg’s story touches on points across the country, but focuses on the particularly egregious violations of West Virginia mining companies. He also details the Environmental Protection Agency’s response to the investigation, as well as its plans for correcting the systematic problems revealed by the Times‘ database.