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.
According to Duhigg, “runoff from all but the largest farms is essentially unregulated by many of the federal laws intended to prevent pollution and protect drinking water sources” and regulation and enforcement are instead left up to local authorities, who often lack the necessary resources.
Duhigg makes the scope of the contamination clear:
“Agricultural runoff is the single largest source of water pollution in the nation’s rivers and streams, according to the E.P.A. An estimated 19.5 million Americans fall ill each year from waterborne parasites, viruses or bacteria, including those stemming from human and animal waste, according to a study published last year in the scientific journal Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.”
In the end, Duhigg seems to indicate that the only real hope of reigning in this contamination lies in overcoming powerful, entrenched ag interests and giving the E.P.A. broader powers to regulate agriculture.
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.