US: Clean Water Laws Are Neglected, at a Cost in Suffering
Jennifer Hall-Massey knows not to drink the tap water in her home near Charleston, W.Va.
In fact, her entire family tries to avoid any contact with the
water. Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the
bathwater - polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals - caused
painful rashes. Many of his brother's teeth were capped to replace
enamel that was eaten away.
Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin
burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead,
manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say
could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.
"How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not
clean water?" said Mrs. Hall-Massey, a senior accountant at one of the
state's largest banks.
She and her husband, Charles, do not live in some remote corner of
Appalachia. Charleston, the state capital, is less than 17 miles from
"How is this still happening today?" she asked.
When Mrs. Hall-Massey and 264 neighbors sued nine nearby coal
companies, accusing them of putting dangerous waste into local water
supplies, their lawyer did not have to look far for evidence. As
required by state law, some of the companies had disclosed in reports
to regulators that they were pumping into the ground illegal
concentrations of chemicals - the same pollutants that flowed from
But state regulators never fined or punished those companies for breaking those pollution laws.
This pattern is not limited to West Virginia. Almost four decades
ago, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to force polluters to disclose
the toxins they dump into waterways and to give regulators the power to
fine or jail offenders. States have passed pollution statutes of their
own. But in 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.
Because it is difficult to determine what causes diseases like
cancer, it is impossible to know how many illnesses are the result of
water pollution, or contaminants' role in the health problems of
But concerns over these toxins are great enough that Congress and
the E.P.A. regulate more than 100 pollutants through the Clean Water
Act and strictly limit 91 chemicals or contaminants in tap water
through the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Regulators themselves acknowledge lapses. The new E.P.A. administrator, Lisa P. Jackson,
said in an interview that despite many successes since the Clean Water
Act was passed in 1972, today the nation's water does not meet public
health goals, and enforcement of water pollution laws is unacceptably
low. She added that strengthening water protections is among her top
priorities. State regulators say they are doing their best with
The Times obtained hundreds of thousands of water pollution records
through Freedom of Information Act requests to every state and the
E.P.A., and compiled a national database of water pollution violations
that is more comprehensive than those maintained by states or the
E.P.A. (For an interactive version, which can show violations in any
community, visit www.nytimes.com/toxicwaters.)
In addition, The Times interviewed more than 250 state and federal
regulators, water-system managers, environmental advocates and
That research shows that an estimated one in 10 Americans have been
exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to
meet a federal health benchmark in other ways.
Those exposures include carcinogens in the tap water of major
American cities and unsafe chemicals in drinking-water wells. Wells,
which are not typically regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, are
more likely to contain contaminants than municipal water systems.
Because most of today's water pollution has no scent or taste, many
people who consume dangerous chemicals do not realize it, even after
they become sick, researchers say.
But an estimated 19.5 million Americans fall ill each year from
drinking water contaminated with parasites, bacteria or viruses,
according to a study published last year in the scientific journal
Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. That figure does
not include illnesses caused by other chemicals and toxins.
In the nation's largest dairy states, like Wisconsin and California,
farmers have sprayed liquefied animal feces onto fields, where it has
seeped into wells, causing severe infections. Tap water in parts of the
Farm Belt, including cities in Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Indiana,
has contained pesticides at concentrations that some scientists have
linked to birth defects and fertility problems.
In parts of New York, Rhode Island, Ohio, California and other
states where sewer systems cannot accommodate heavy rains, untreated
human waste has flowed into rivers and washed onto beaches. Drinking
water in parts of New Jersey, New York, Arizona and Massachusetts shows
some of the highest concentrations of tetrachloroethylene, a dry
cleaning solvent that has been linked to kidney damage and cancer.
(Specific types of water pollution across the United States will be
examined in future Times articles.)
The Times's research also shows that last year, 40 percent of the
nation's community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act
at least once, according to an analysis of E.P.A. data. Those
violations ranged from failing to maintain proper paperwork to allowing
carcinogens into tap water. More than 23 million people received
drinking water from municipal systems that violated a health-based
In some cases, people got sick right away. In other situations,
pollutants like chemicals, inorganic toxins and heavy metals can
accumulate in the body for years or decades before they cause problems.
Some of the most frequently detected contaminants have been linked to
cancer, birth defects and neurological disorders.
Records analyzed by The Times indicate that the Clean Water Act has
been violated more than 506,000 times since 2004, by more than 23,000
companies and other facilities, according to reports submitted by
polluters themselves. Companies sometimes test what they are dumping
only once a quarter, so the actual number of days when they broke the
law is often far higher. And some companies illegally avoid reporting
their emissions, say officials, so infractions go unrecorded.
Environmental groups say the number of Clean Water Act violations
has increased significantly in the last decade. Comprehensive data go
back only five years but show that the number of facilities violating
the Clean Water Act grew more than 16 percent from 2004 to 2007, the
most recent year with complete data.
Polluters include small companies, like gas stations, dry cleaners,
shopping malls and the Friendly Acres Mobile Home Park in Laporte,
Ind., which acknowledged to regulators that it had dumped human waste
into a nearby river for three years.
They also include large operations, like chemical factories, power
plants, sewage treatment centers and one of the biggest zinc smelters,
the Horsehead Corporation of Pennsylvania, which has dumped illegal
concentrations of copper, lead, zinc, chlorine and selenium into the
Ohio River. Those chemicals can contribute to mental retardation and
Some violations are relatively minor. But about 60 percent of the
polluters were deemed in "significant noncompliance" - meaning their
violations were the most serious kind, like dumping cancer-causing
chemicals or failing to measure or report when they pollute.
Finally, the Times's research shows that fewer than 3 percent of
Clean Water Act violations resulted in fines or other significant
punishments by state officials. And the E.P.A. has often declined to
prosecute polluters or force states to strengthen their enforcement by
threatening to withhold federal money or take away powers the agency
has delegated to state officials.
Neither Friendly Acres Mobile Home Park nor Horsehead, for instance,
was fined for Clean Water Act violations in the last eight years. A
representative of Friendly Acres declined to comment. Indiana officials
say they are investigating the mobile home park. A representative of
Horsehead said the company had taken steps to control pollution and was
negotiating with regulators to clean up its emissions.
Numerous state and federal lawmakers said they were unaware that pollution was so widespread.
"I don't think anyone realized how bad things have become," said Representative James L. Oberstar,
a Minnesota Democrat, when told of The Times's findings. Mr. Oberstar
is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee,
which has jurisdiction over many water-quality issues.
"The E.P.A. and states have completely dropped the ball," he said.
"Without oversight and enforcement, companies will use our lakes and
rivers as dumping grounds - and that's exactly what is apparently going
The E.P.A. administrator, Ms. Jackson, whose appointment was
confirmed in January, said in an interview that she intended to
strengthen enforcement of the Clean Water Act and pressure states to
apply the law.
"I've been saying since Day One I want to work on these water issues
pretty broadly across the country," she said. On Friday, the E.P.A.
said that it was reviewing dozens of coal-mining permits in West
Virginia and three other states to make sure they would not violate the
Clean Water Act.
After E.P.A. officials received detailed questions from The New York Times in June, Ms. Jackson sent a memo
to her enforcement deputy noting that the E.P.A. is "falling short of
this administration's expectations for the effectiveness of our clean
water enforcement programs. Data available to E.P.A. shows that, in
many parts of the country, the level of significant noncompliance with
permitting requirements is unacceptably high and the level of
enforcement activity is unacceptably low."
State officials, for their part, attribute rising pollution rates to
increased workloads and dwindling resources. In 46 states, local
regulators have primary responsibility for crucial aspects of the Clean
Water Act. Though the number of regulated facilities has more than
doubled in the last 10 years, many state enforcement budgets have
remained essentially flat when adjusted for inflation. In New York, for
example, the number of regulated polluters has almost doubled to 19,000
in the last decade, but the number of inspections each year has
remained about the same.
But stretched resources are only part of the reason polluters escape
punishment. The Times's investigation shows that in West Virginia and
other states, powerful industries have often successfully lobbied to
undermine effective regulation.
State officials also argue that water pollution statistics include
minor infractions, like failing to file reports, which do not pose
risks to human health, and that records collected by The Times failed
to examine informal enforcement methods, like sending warning letters.
"We work enormously hard inspecting our coal mines, analyzing water
samples, notifying companies of violations when we detect them," said
Randy Huffman, head of West Virginia's Department of Environmental
Protection. "When I look at how far we've come in protecting the
state's waters since we took responsibility for the Clean Water Act, I
think we have a lot to be proud of."
But unchecked pollution remains a problem in many states. West
Virginia offers a revealing example of why so many companies escape
One Community's Plight
The mountains surrounding the home of Mrs. Hall-Massey's family and
West Virginia's nearby capital have long been mined for coal. And for
years, the area enjoyed clean well water.
But starting about a decade ago, awful smells began coming from
local taps. The water was sometimes gray, cloudy and oily. Bathtubs and
washers developed rust-colored rings that scrubbing could not remove.
When Mrs. Hall-Massey's husband installed industrial water filters,
they quickly turned black. Tests showed that their water contained
toxic amounts of lead, manganese, barium and other metals that can
contribute to organ failure or developmental problems.
Around that time, nearby coal companies had begun pumping industrial waste into the ground.
Mining companies often wash their coal to remove impurities. The
leftover liquid - a black fluid containing dissolved minerals and
chemicals, known as sludge or slurry - is often disposed of in vast
lagoons or through injection into abandoned mines. The liquid in those
lagoons and shafts can flow through cracks in the earth into water
supplies. Companies must regularly send samples of the injected liquid
to labs, which provide reports that are forwarded to state regulators.
In the eight miles surrounding Mrs. Hall-Massey's home, coal
companies have injected more than 1.9 billion gallons of coal slurry
and sludge into the ground since 2004, according to a review of
thousands of state records. Millions more gallons have been dumped into
These underground injections have contained chemicals at
concentrations that pose serious health risks, and thousands of
injections have violated state regulations and the Safe Drinking Water
Act, according to reports sent to the state by companies themselves.
For instance, three coal companies - Loadout, Remington Coal and Pine Ridge, a subsidiary of Peabody Energy,
one of the largest coal companies in the world - reported to state
officials that 93 percent of the waste they injected near this
community had illegal concentrations of chemicals including arsenic,
lead, chromium, beryllium or nickel.
Sometimes those concentrations exceeded legal limits by as much as
1,000 percent. Those chemicals have been shown to contribute to cancer,
organ failures and other diseases.
But those companies were never fined or punished for those illegal
injections, according to state records. They were never even warned
that their activities had been noticed.
Remington Coal declined to comment. A representative of Loadout's
parent said the company had assigned its permit to another company,
which ceased injecting in 2006. Peabody Energy, which spun off Pine
Ridge in 2007, said that some data sent to regulators was inaccurate
and that the company's actions reflected best industry practices.
West Virginia officials, when asked about these violations, said
regulators had accidentally overlooked many pollution records the
companies submitted until after the statute of limitations had passed,
so no action was taken. They also said their studies indicated that
those injections could not have affected drinking water in the area and
that other injections also had no detectable effect.
State officials noted that they had cited more than 4,200 water
pollution violations at mine sites around the state since 2000, as well
as conducted thousands of investigations. The state has initiated
research about how mining affects water quality. After receiving
questions from The Times, officials announced a statewide moratorium on
issuing injection permits and told some companies that regulators were
investigating their injections.
"Many of the issues you are examining are several years old, and
many have been addressed," West Virginia officials wrote in a
statement. The state's pollution program "has had its share of issues,"
regulators wrote. However, "it is important to note that if the close
scrutiny given to our state had been given to others, it is likely that
similar issues would have been found."
More than 350 other companies and facilities in West Virginia have
also violated the Clean Water Act in recent years, records show. Those
infractions include releasing illegal concentrations of iron,
manganese, aluminum and other chemicals into lakes and rivers.
As the water in Mrs. Hall-Massey's community continued to worsen,
residents began complaining of increased health problems. Gall bladder
diseases, fertility problems, miscarriages and kidney and thyroid
issues became common, according to interviews.
When Mrs. Hall-Massey's family left on vacation, her sons' rashes
cleared up. When they returned, the rashes reappeared. Her dentist told
her that chemicals appeared to be damaging her teeth and her son's, she
said. As the quality of her water worsened, Mrs. Hall-Massey's
once-healthy teeth needed many crowns. Her son brushed his teeth often,
used a fluoride rinse twice a day and was not allowed to eat sweets.
Even so, he continued getting cavities until the family stopped using
tap water. By the time his younger brother's teeth started coming in,
the family was using bottled water to brush. He has not had dental
Medical professionals in the area say residents show unusually high
rates of health problems. A survey of more than 100 residents conducted
by a nurse hired by Mrs. Hall-Massey's lawyer indicated that as many as
30 percent of people in this area have had their gallbladders removed,
and as many as half the residents have significant tooth enamel damage,
chronic stomach problems and other illnesses. That research was
confirmed through interviews with residents.
It is difficult to determine which companies, if any, are
responsible for the contamination that made its way into tap water or
to conclude which specific chemicals, if any, are responsible for
particular health problems. Many coal companies say they did not
pollute the area's drinking water and chose injection sites that flowed
away from nearby homes.
An independent study by a university researcher challenges some of those claims.
"I don't know what else could be polluting these wells," said Ben
Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University who tested the
water in this community and elsewhere in West Virginia. "The chemicals
coming out of people's taps are identical to the chemicals the coal
companies are pumping into the ground."
One night, Mrs. Hall-Massey's 6-year-old son, Clay, asked to play in
the tub. When he got out, his bright red rashes hurt so much he could
not fall asleep. Soon, Mrs. Hall-Massey began complaining to state
officials. They told her they did not know why her water was bad, she
recalls, but doubted coal companies had done anything wrong. The family
put their house on the market, but because of the water, buyers were
In December, Mrs. Hall-Massey and neighbors sued in county court,
seeking compensation. That suit is pending. To resolve a related
lawsuit filed about the same time, the community today gets regular
deliveries of clean drinking water, stored in coolers or large blue
barrels outside most homes. Construction began in August on a pipeline
bringing fresh water to the community.
But for now most residents still use polluted water to bathe, shower and wash dishes.
"A parent's only real job is to protect our children," Mrs.
Hall-Massey said. "But where was the government when we needed them to
protect us from this stuff?"
Matthew Crum, a 43-year-old lawyer, wanted to protect people like
Mrs. Hall-Massey. That is why he joined West Virginia's environmental
protection agency in 2001, when it became clear that the state's and
nation's streams and rivers were becoming more polluted.
But he said he quickly learned that good intentions could not compete with intimidating politicians and a fearful bureaucracy.
Mr. Crum grew up during a golden age of environmental activism. He
was in elementary school when Congress passed the Clean Water Act of
1972 in response to environmental disasters, including a fire on the
polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. The act's goal was to eliminate
most water pollution by 1985 and prohibit the "discharge of toxic
pollutants in toxic amounts."
"There were a bunch of us that were raised with the example of the
Clean Water Act as inspiration," he said. "I wanted to be part of that
In the two decades after the act's passage, the nation's waters grew
much healthier. The Cuyahoga River, West Virginia's Kanawha River and
hundreds of other beaches, streams and ponds were revitalized.
But in the late 1990s, some states' enforcement of pollution laws
began tapering off, according to regulators and environmentalists. Soon
the E.P.A. started reporting that the nation's rivers, lakes and
estuaries were becoming dirtier again. Mr. Crum, after a stint in
Washington with the Justice Department and the birth of his first
child, joined West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection,
where new leadership was committed to revitalizing the Clean Water Act.
He said his idealism was tested within two weeks, when he was called to a huge coal spill into a stream.
"I met our inspector at the spill site, and we had this really
awkward conversation," Mr. Crum recalled. "I said we should shut down
the mine until everything was cleaned up. The inspector agreed, but he
said if he issued that order, he was scared of getting demoted or
transferred to the middle of nowhere. Everyone was terrified of doing
Mr. Crum temporarily shut the mine.
In the next two years, he shut many polluting mines until they
changed their ways. His tough approach raised his profile around the
Mining companies, worried about attracting Mr. Crum's attention,
began improving their waste disposal practices, executives from that
period said. But they also began complaining to their friends in the
state's legislature, they recalled in interviews, and started a whisper
campaign accusing Mr. Crum of vendettas against particular companies -
though those same executives now admit they had no evidence for those
In 2003, a new director, Stephanie Timmermeyer, was nominated to run
the Department of Environmental Protection. One of West Virginia's most
powerful state lawmakers, Eustace Frederick, said she would be
confirmed, but only if she agreed to fire Mr. Crum, according to
several people who said they witnessed the conversation.
She was given the job and soon summoned Mr. Crum to her office. He was dismissed two weeks after his second child's birth.
Ms. Timmermeyer, who resigned in 2008, did not return calls. Mr. Frederick died last year.
Since then, hundreds of workplaces in West Virginia have violated
pollution laws without paying fines. A half-dozen current and former
employees, in interviews, said their enforcement efforts had been
undermined by bureaucratic disorganization, a departmental preference
to let polluters escape punishment if they promise to try harder, and a
revolving door of regulators who leave for higher-paying jobs at the
companies they once policed.
"We are outmanned and overwhelmed, and that's exactly how industry
wants us," said one employee who requested anonymity for fear of being
fired. "It's been obvious for decades that we're not on top of things,
and coal companies have earned billions relying on that."
In June, four environmental groups petitioned the E.P.A. to take
over much of West Virginia's handling of the Clean Water Act, citing a
"nearly complete breakdown" in the state. The E.P.A. has asked state
officials to respond and said it is investigating the petition.
Similar problems exist in other states, where critics say regulators
have often turned a blind eye to polluters. Regulators in five other
states, in interviews, said they had been pressured by
industry-friendly politicians to drop continuing pollution
"Unless the E.P.A. is pushing state regulators, a culture of
transgression and apathy sets in," said William K. Reilly, who led the
E.P.A. under President George H. W. Bush.
In response, many state officials defend their efforts. A
spokeswoman for West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection,
for instance, said that between 2006 and 2008, the number of
cease-operation orders issued by regulators was 10 percent higher than
during Mr. Crum's two-year tenure.
Mr. Huffman, the department's head, said there is no political
interference with current investigations. Department officials say they
continue to improve the agency's procedures, and note that regulators
have assessed $14.7 million in state fines against more than 70 mining
companies since 2006.
However, that is about equal to the revenue those businesses' parent
companies collect every 10 hours, according to financial reports. (To
find out about every state's enforcement record and read comments from
regulators, visit www.nytimes.com/waterdata.)
"The real test is, is our water clean?" said Mr. Huffman. "When the
Clean Water Act was passed, this river that flows through our capital
was very dirty. Thirty years later, it's much cleaner because we've
chosen priorities carefully."
Some regulators admit that polluters have fallen through the cracks.
To genuinely improve enforcement, they say, the E.P.A. needs to lead.
"If you don't have vigorous oversight by the feds, then everything
just goes limp," said Mr. Crum. "Regulators can't afford to have some
backbone unless they know Washington or the governor's office will back
It took Mr. Crum a while to recover from his firing. He moved to Virginia to work at the Nature Conservancy, an environmental conservation group. Today, he is in private practice and works on the occasional environmental lawsuit.
"We're moving backwards," he said, "and it's heartbreaking."
Shortcomings of the E.P.A.
The memos are marked "DO NOT DISTRIBUTE."
They were written this year by E.P.A. staff, the culmination of a
five-year investigation of states' enforcement of federal pollution
laws. And in bland, bureaucratic terms, they describe a regulatory
system - at the E.P.A. and among state agencies - that in many ways
simply does not work.
For years, according to one memo, federal regulators knew that more
than 30 states had major problems documenting which companies were
violating pollution laws. Another notes that states' "personnel lack
direction, ability or training" to levy fines large enough to deter
But often, the memos say, the E.P.A. never corrected those problems
even though they were widely acknowledged. The E.P.A. "may hesitate to
push the states" out of "fear of risking their relationships," one
report reads. Another notes that E.P.A. offices lack "a consistent
national oversight strategy."
Some of those memos, part of an effort known as the State Review
Framework, were obtained from agency employees who asked for anonymity,
and others through Freedom of Information Act requests.
Enforcement lapses were particularly bad under the administration of President George W. Bush,
employees say. "For the last eight years, my hands have been tied,"
said one E.P.A. official who requested anonymity for fear of
retribution. "We were told to take our clean water and clean air cases,
put them in a box, and lock it shut. Everyone knew polluters were
getting away with murder. But these polluters are some of the biggest
campaign contributors in town, so no one really cared if they were
dumping poisons into streams."
When President Obama
chose Ms. Jackson to head the E.P.A., many environmentalists and agency
employees were encouraged. During his campaign, Mr. Obama promised to
"reinvigorate the drinking water standards that have been weakened
under the Bush administration and update them to address new threats."
He pledged to regulate water pollution from livestock operations and
push for amendments to the Clean Water Act.
But some worry those promises will not be kept. Water issues have
taken a back seat to other environmental concerns, like carbon
In an interview, Ms. Jackson noted that many of the nation's waters
were healthier today than when the Clean Water Act was passed and said
she intended to enforce the law more vigorously. After receiving
detailed questions from The Times, she put many of the State Review
Framework documents on the agency's Web site, and ordered more
disclosure of the agency's handling of water issues, increased
enforcement and revamped technology so that facilities' environmental
records are more accessible.
"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."
In statements, E.P.A. officials noted that from 2006 to 2008, the
agency conducted 11,000 Clean Water Act and 21,000 Safe Drinking Water
Act inspections, and referred 146 cases to the Department of Justice.
During the 2007 to 2008 period, officials wrote, 92 percent of the
population served by community water systems received water that had no
reported health-based violations.
The Times's reporting, the statements added, "does not distinguish
between significant violations and minor violations," and "as a result,
the conclusions may present an unduly alarming picture." They wrote
that "much of the country's water quality problems are caused by
discharges from nonpoint sources of pollution, such as agricultural
runoff, which cannot be corrected solely through enforcement."
Ultimately, lawmakers and environmental activists say, the best
solution is for Congress to hold the E.P.A. and states accountable for
The Clean Water Act, they add, should be expanded to police other
types of pollution - like farm and livestock runoff - that are largely
unregulated. And they say Congress should give state agencies more
resources, in the same way that federal dollars helped overhaul the
nation's sewage systems in the 1970s.
Some say changes will not occur without public outrage.
"When we started regulating water pollution in the 1970s, there was
a huge public outcry because you could see raw sewage flowing into the
rivers," said William D. Ruckelshaus, who served as the first head of
the Environmental Protection Agency under President Richard M. Nixon, and then again under President Ronald Reagan.
"Today the violations are much more subtle - pesticides and
chemicals you can't see or smell that are even more dangerous," he
added. "And so a lot of the public pressure on regulatory agencies has
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