(Editor’s note: News21 has provided us this first installment in a series of reports about water and issues surrounding it. Look for more in the future, and read their excellent coverage of voting rights from 2016 here.)
WOLFFORTH, Texas — As many as 63 million people — nearly a fifth of the country — from rural, central California to the boroughs of New York City, were exposed to potentially unsafe water more than once during the past decade, according to a News21 investigation of 680,000 water-quality and monitoring violations from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The findings highlight how six decades of industrial dumping, farming pollution and water-plant and distribution-pipe deterioration have taken a toll on local water systems. Those found to have problems cleaning their water typically took more than two years to fix these issues, with some only recently resolving decades-old violations of EPA standards. Others still deliver tainted water, according to data from the agency’s Safe Drinking Water Information System.
Many local water-treatment plants, especially those in small, poor and minority communities, can’t afford the equipment necessary to filter out contaminants. Those can include arsenic found naturally in rock, chemicals from factories and nitrates and fecal matter from farming. In addition, much of the country’s aging distribution pipes delivering the water to millions of people are susceptible to lead contamination, leaks, breaks and bacterial growth.
Experts warn contamination in water can lead to cancer, gastrointestinal diseases and developmental delays in children.
The EPA estimates local water systems will need to invest $384 billion in the coming decades to keep water clean. The cost per person is more than twice as high in small communities as it is in large towns and cities. The EPA and water treatment industry consider the coming years a crucial period for American drinking-water safety as pipes and treatment plants built in the mid-20th century reach the end of their useful lives.
“We’re in this really stupid situation where, because of neglect of the infrastructure, we’re spending our scarce resources on putting our fingers in the dike, if you will, taking care of these emergencies, but we’re not doing anything to think about the future in terms of what we should be doing,” said Jeffrey Griffiths, a former member of the Drinking Water Committee at the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.
News21 analyzed 680,000 violations from a 10-year period starting Jan. 1, 2007, in the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System. The database only contains active community water systems in U.S. states and tribal lands because they are the most likely to serve homes. The EPA data also show how many people violations affected. The EPA has acknowledged this database might not reflect all violations that have occurred, and some information may be incorrect.
The violations included two types: health-based violations and monitoring/reporting violations. Health-based violations are instances when water was found to be contaminated or not properly treated for contaminants. The story refers to these violations as water-quality violations. Monitoring/reporting violations occur when a water system either fails to test for a contaminant or report its test result to the state and customers.
As water systems age, 63 percent of Americans are now concerned a “great deal” about drinking-water pollution, according to a Gallup poll released in March that showed such worries at their highest level since 2001. Drinking-water pollution has long been a top environmental concern for Americans — above air pollution and climate change, according to the same poll.
Many of the nation’s largest city systems violated EPA safety standards during the past decade, potentially exposing tens of millions of people to dangerous contaminants. New York City’s system, which serves 8.3 million people, failed standards meant to protect its water from viruses and bacteria two times during that period. The system still hasn’t addressed its most recent violation from February for not building a cover for one of its water reservoirs, according to EPA records.
The problems extend to the country’s large suburbs. Tacoma, Washington’s system failed to meet a federally mandated timeline for installing a treatment plant meant to kill the parasite cryptosporidium. Chris McMeen, deputy superintendent for the Seattle suburb’s system, which serves 317,600 people, said the pathogen has never been found in dangerous levels in the city’s water. The system was also cited for failing to test for dozens of chemicals during the past decade.
In Waukesha, Wisconsin, 18 miles west of Milwaukee, decades of radium contamination from the city’s underground aquifer prompted officials to draft a proposal to draw water from Lake Michigan for its 71,000 residents. The Great Water Alliance, a $200 million project, is expected to be completed by 2023.
Thousands of rural towns have the most problems because communities often lack the expertise and resources to provide safe drinking water.
In several Southwestern states, 2 million people received groundwater tainted with arsenic, radium or fluoride from their local water systems, with many exposed to these chemicals for years before hundreds of small, low-income communities could afford to filter them out. Some still haven’t cleaned up their water.
Contamination in rural areas from these naturally occurring chemicals, found in the bedrock of aquifers, made Texas, Oklahoma and California the top states for EPA drinking-water quality violations during the past decade.
“Sometimes it’s orange, sometimes it’s green, sometimes it’s brown,” said Melissa Regeon, a lifelong resident of Brady, Texas, which is trying to secure money for water system upgrades to filter out the radium in its water. “You just never know. It looks horrible.”
Small water systems in California’s San Joaquin Valley have battled both farming pollution and natural contamination from arsenic for years. High levels of nitrate from farm runoff and groundwater rock are linked to low oxygen levels in babies and cancer. Those levels have been found in systems serving 317,000 people during the past decade in the valley, 10,000 square miles of concentrated farming in the state’s center.
The crash of the coal mining industry in southern West Virginia has left hundreds of residents in charge of their own small water systems – some of which date to the Civil War. Residents in the mountains of Wyoming and Fayette counties say they are getting too old to maintain water treatment plants and pipes, and they lack funding to carry out proper treatment on the water, which comes from springs in old coal mines.
“What is pretty clear is that a lot of these small communities, especially in lower-income areas, have a real problem ensuring compliance or even treating the water,” said Erik Olson, director of the health program at the National Resources Defense Council. “A lot of these smaller communities, they don’t even have the wherewithal to apply for available funding.”
Drinking-water quality is often dependent on the wealth and racial makeup of communities, according to News21’s analysis. Small, poor communities and neglected urban areas are sometimes left to fend for themselves with little help from state and federal governments.
In recent years, drinking-water crises in minority communities, like Flint, Michigan, and East Chicago, Indiana, made national news when old pipes leached lead into the water of thousands for months before state and federal officials responded. In Texas, Corpus Christi’s water system shut down for nearly four days in December because of a chemical spill at an asphalt plant, closing schools and businesses throughout the predominantly Hispanic city.
“These are not isolated incidences, the Flints of the world or the Corpus Christis or the East Chicagos,” said Manuel Teodoro, a researcher at Texas A&M University who co-authored a report on the disproportionate effect of drinking water quality problems on poor minority communities.
“These incidents are getting media attention in a way that they didn’t a few years ago, but the patterns that we see in the data suggest that problems with drinking water quality are not just randomly distributed in the population — that there is a systemic bias out there.”
Many residents of Tallulah, Louisiana, where 77 percent of the population is black and 40 percent lives in poverty, have turned to bottled water as their crumbling utility failed to keep water free of toxic disinfectant byproducts. Systems serving thousands of others in predominantly black communities around the state have struggled to keep these carcinogens out of their taps.
Many Latinos along the U.S.-Mexico border who live in unincorporated low-income rural areas lack the resources to maintain their systems or don’t have access to treated water.
Although the EPA sets minimum drinking water standards, almost all state governments are in charge of testing requirements and operator licensing, creating a maze of regulations and protections that differ from state to state.
A 2011 Government Accountability Office report found the EPA’s database isn’t complete, with some states incorrectly reporting or failing to report many violations. The EPA also hasn’t created a rule for a new contaminant since 2000.
“America’s drinking water remains among the safest in the world and protecting drinking water is EPA’s top priority,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement to News21. “More than 90 percent of the country’s drinking water systems meet all of EPA’s health-based drinking water standards every day throughout the year.”
The EPA did not make any officials available for an interview.
While most Americans get their water from local utilities, the 15 million homes with private wells, especially in rural areas, are vulnerable to the same contamination issues but are not required to install treatment systems. The limited data available shows wells in many parts of the country draw groundwater containing dangerous levels of toxins from naturally occurring elements and man-made sources.
What’s in the water?
While many communities with small systems struggle to address contamination issues, thousands more of these communities aren’t sure if their water is safe because their systems don’t test properly or report the results.
In southern West Virginia coal country, a number of communities failed to test their water hundreds of times after the miners that operated them left when their camps shut down. Many of these systems are now run by the residents.
In Garwood, a 55-person Wyoming County town surrounded by coal mines, the community water system stopped testing in 2014.
“Everybody just up and quit,” said lifelong resident Jessica Griffith, who drank untreated water from an old coal mine for nine months before learning it wasn’t being tested. “There was no warning, no nothing. Nobody handed it over to anybody else.”
The stay-at-home mom and her neighbors say maintenance seems like a full-time job, and they can only afford to patch up leaks and fix busted pipes.
“We’ve just been trying to keep the water flowing because we don’t have the money to treat it,” Griffith said. “We don’t know how to treat it.”
Two hours north, Kanawha Falls Community Water in Fayette County was cited for not testing or reporting more than 2,000 times in 10 years, the most in the country. No one is sure when the system stopped being maintained, but residents say they experience the consequences daily. Joe Underwood, who had skull surgery after a four-wheeler accident, said he showers with a cap after doctors told him the town’s water gave him two infections near his brain.
“The old-style ways of getting water is not healthy,” Underwood said. “And I’m meaning that for people that have serious injuries. I’m meaning that for little babies. I’m meaning that for anybody that has any kind of health problems.”
The unincorporated community relies on volunteers like Bobby Kirby, nominated by his neighbors to be water system treasurer, to pour chlorine into the storage tanks to disinfect the water. After years of not testing and reporting, Kirby says the state threatened to arrest him for failing to turn in paperwork.
“They came here and said they was going to lock me up,” he said. “Well, I told them, ‘You can lock me up if you want to, but I don’t own it. I’m just a property owner that wants water.’”
The West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, the agency responsible for improving infrastructure in the state, announced several projects to link communities like Kanawha Falls and Garwood to surrounding city water systems. Kanawha Falls’ $1.8 million extension is scheduled to be completed by the end of the summer.
While some systems in West Virginia have no operators, other small systems throughout the country don’t have the money to ensure full-time maintenance.
Scotts Mills, a city of 370 tucked away in the tree-lined foothills of northwest Oregon, cannot afford to hire a full-time staff for its water system and relies on local volunteers to step up.
“We rely on a neighbor complaining about an odor or something like that. We really don’t have any staff to drive around and look,” said Dick Bielenberg, the city councilman in charge of water. “If there’s a water leak or something like that we’ll take care of that, sometimes with volunteer labor, sometimes we’ll hire an outside contractor, depends upon how big the project is.”
Resident Jake Ehredt volunteered to be the water commissioner when he moved into community three years ago. However, Ehredt is also a full-time water system operator for the neighboring city of Molalla and said he can only spend an hour or two a day in Scotts Mills for routine checks. While he is away, residents with water problems are directed to call Bielenberg by a sticky note on the city hall door.
“One thing we have out here is contact with our elected officials. We know them,” said Ron Hays, whose family has lived in and around Scotts Mills since 1899. “If the water main breaks, you know who to call.”
Though surveys from the Oregon Health Authority showed the city’s water system hasn’t violated any safety standards, Bielenberg says the city needs a plan for at least the next 20 years should any problems arise.
According to the EPA, most of the $384 billion needed to keep the country’s water systems safe should go toward upgrading pipes buried underground that distribute the water — out of sight and mind to most Americans until one of them bursts.
“The plants are visible. If EPA makes a regulation, and you have to comply with it, then the utility manager can go to the board and say, ‘Hey, I have to do this, EPA is making me do it,’ and then get the money to build the treatment improvements,” said Roberson, of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. “It’s a little harder, then, when you’re talking about the pipes that are buried in the ground because you don’t see the pipes. You don’t know if you have a problem until you get a big leak or a big geyser comes out in the street.”
Even if water service is not disrupted by a pipe break, millions of miles of lead pipes in the U.S. are at risk of leaching the toxic metal into drinking water without proper oversight from system operators. In Milwaukee, about 70,000 homes are connected to the city’s water system with aging lead pipes, many of which run under low-income and African-American communities in the city’s northside neighborhoods. Many residents fear this has contributed to the city’s high rate of lead poisoning among children.
Pipes that leak or break can also introduce bacteria and chemicals from the surrounding soil after the water has already been treated.
Government officials acknowledge the daunting challenges ahead for water utilities. In the final months of the Obama administration, the EPA’s Office of Water published a report highlighting aging infrastructure, unregulated contaminants and financial support for small and poor communities as top concerns for drinking water quality going forward.
“The actions proposed here go far beyond what EPA alone can do; all levels of government, utilities, the private sector and the public each have critical roles to play,” the report said. “Utilities ultimately must take many of the critical actions needed to strengthen drinking water safety, and communities must be actively engaged in supporting these actions.”