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April 2015 Archives

Less Government Patience, More Government Action Needed on North Carolina Groundwater Contamination

Why isn't the State of North Carolina doing more to protect its own citizens against contaminated water? For years, North Carolina has departed from the practice of most states, and allowed political heavyweight Duke Energy to store coal ash--the toxic residue of coal burning--in unlined pits near bodies of water and even residents. No liners required.1 No man-made barrier to prevent the dangerous ash from leaking into area groundwater supplies, even though many residents living near Duke Energy power plants and its coal ash pits depend on the groundwater for drinking, bathing, and preparing food. Reportedly, Duke Energy now stores some 120 million tons of coal ash in the Duke Energy-friendly State.1 I suppose that's what happens when you make it cheap for companies to store dangerous chemicals in your state...they wind up storing lots of dangerous chemicals in your state. Recently, the North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) notified families living near a Duke Energy power plant that tests of the water in their groundwater wells reveals the presence of vanadium and hexavalent chromium--chemicals often associated with coal ash.1 Both are toxic to humans. They are not supposed to be in the water that people are drinking. DENR has therefore told these families--20 of them, in one mailing--to no longer use their water.1 So, not wishing to be poisoned by the water coming out of the ground, what do they do for water? Duke Energy--while maintaining that "there is no proof" that the company is the source of the dangerous chemicals in their neighbors' water--is supplying them bottled water to live on.1  So, instead of drinking and preparing food with water from a tap, these families can now fumble their way through large jugs of bottled water to accomplish those tasks. And if they wish to bathe in water that is not laced with toxic chemicals, they can presumably pour several jugs of Duke Energy's bottled water into the bath tub, and try it that way. Says a Duke Energy spokesperson about its bottled water for the families: "We want people to have peace of mind".1 As if peace of mind came in a bottle. Even a large one. While common sense says that bottled water is only a short term answer here, no one seems to be in a hurry to figure out where these folks will get clean water over the long term.  For its part, Duke Energy says that, if its own testing proves that it is indeed the source of the contamination, it will consider paying to connect these families to a local, safe water network.2  But Duke Energy says that its testing will not be done until 4 months from now--August 2015.2 For its part, the County Commission--which controls access to the local, safe water network--doesn't appear all that interested in allowing its network to be used for the protection of families in danger from contaminated groundwater. Says one of the commissioners:  "our intention is not to build a water system simply to take care of 20 families."2 What the hell is going on here?  Isn't anybody in a rush to help these people who the state has bluntly told not to drink their water because it is so dangerous? Look at how the powerful organizations all around these folks are letting them down:

DON'T "LEAVE IT UP TO THE EXPERTS" TO PROTECT THE PEOPLE AGAINST GROUNDWATER CONTAMINATION

Last year, the groundwater feeding a well located at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire Airport--which was one of several wells supplying water to the citizens of the City of Portsmouth--was found to be contaminated with dangerous levels of a chemical known as perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS. The well is called the "Haven" well. The chemical detected at the Haven well is believed to have migrated to the groundwater supply after being sprayed for years at the Airport as part of a PFOS-containing firefighting foam. 1 The City had no choice but to shut down the Haven well, so that no one drinking the City's water would be exposed to the PFOS. Testing also showed that chemicals from the same family--perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA--had contaminated groundwater feeding two other city wells ("Smith" and "Harrison"), which were located to the south of Haven, although the levels detected at Smith and Harrison on that day were below the levels considered dangerous. So, the Smith and Harrison wells have not been shut down, and presumably continue to supply water to the City's residents. New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services (DES) says it is on the job, that it is watching to see if greater levels of contamination are heading toward the Smith and Harrison wells, which would result in their shut down, too. Portsmouth's mayor, for his part, is understandably concerned about the possibility of even greater impairment to his City's water supply, but then suggests to his constituents that "we need to leave it to the experts to determine how concerned we need to be". 1 Respectfully, Mr. Mayor, no you don't need to do that, and in fact, you shouldn't. Especially when something so dear as the integrity of your water supply is concerned, you and your constituents deserve not only rapid action to protect them, but also timely and accurate information. In short, you deserve the right to be involved. You can't just trust that the "experts" are going to get the job done all by themselves. I have no reason to distrust DES here, but, after all, they are government bureaucrats, and my experience as an environmental lawyer over the last 15 years tells me that citizens must never trust that their government is as diligent in protecting them as it should be. For example, limited government budgets, changing government personal, competing government priorities and political pressures often slow or even halt investigations into groundwater contamination, and clean-up efforts. The people of Portsmouth and their Mayor do not want to wake up years from now to find that they have a badly compromised water supply because their government couldn't give it the attention that it should have. What's the answer?  The Mayor is certainly correct when he says that he and his constituents are not environmental "experts", so how is it that they should stick their noses in this problem, which is certainly scientifically complicated? Simple: public pressure. The people of Portsmouth do not have to pretend to be environmental "experts", but they can be experts in demanding protection of their water supply, and demanding a timely flow of information and action, so that they can monitor whether or not their government is doing its job. No need to be anything but a concerned citizen to be that kind of an expert. We all understand that, when public and media attention stops, the priorities of those in government often change. They tend to move on to the next problem that is getting attention.  So, people of Portsmouth: don't let that happen. Don't let government's attention stray from the job of protecting your water supply. Specifically:

Find Out ASAP If There is TCE Vapor Intrusion in Homes in Elmira, New York

Last week, New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) announced that chemical contamination discovered at the former Triple Cities Metal Finishing plant in Elmira, New York "presents a significant threat to public health and/or the environment".  DEC has determined that industrial chemicals--including TCE--once used at the plant in its electroplating operation have contaminated the property's "soil, groundwater and soil vapor at levels exceeding applicable standards."1 Cutting through the bureaucrat-speak, this means that nasty chemicals once used at the plant may have spread to the nearby neighborhood, and may now be underneath, or even inside, the homes there. While DEC says it wants to find out if, in fact, that has happened--and that is a good and necessary step for DEC to take--DEC must take that step urgently. Now. In my experience, it can take government years or even decades to find out if dangerous chemicals have spread from an industrial site into a neighborhood.  There are lots of reasons why it takes so long--complicated science, lack of money, political resistance to learning the truth, etc.--but none of the reasons is a good one. Here, TCE--which is but one of the chemicals already found in soil, groundwater and soil vapor at the Elmira plant--is a carcinogen.  It is associated with cancer of the kidney, liver, cervix and lymphatic system.  Elmira families may have TCE on their properties or in the air they breathe in their homes.  These families should not have to wait years to find out if this has happened or, hopefully, to get the peace of mind that comes from finding out that the chemicals did not reach their neighborhood after all. I understand that the Elmira area is served by a municipal water system, which is very good news.  It means that any of the TCE or other chemicals that might have seeped into the groundwater over the years is not entering homes through faucets and shower heads. But that isn't the whole story.  Because TCE (among other chemicals) "volatilizes"--meaning TCE turns into vapor or gas--it can migrate upward from contaminated groundwater, and slip quietly into the breathing space of homes sitting above the groundwater.  This is a simple graphic depiction of this process called "vapor intrusion":

Whom To Trust In Troubled Water? Not the Government: North Carolina is Failing to Protect Contamination Victims

Unfortunately, Deborah and Ralph Graham of Dukeville, North Carolina can now be added to the large and growing list of American families who are learning the hard way that they cannot trust their government to protect them against chemical contamination, even though the Grahams pay their government (in taxes) to do precisely that. The Charlotte Observer describes how the Grahams have recently learned from the state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) that the water they use for bathing, cooking and drinking is contaminated with what North Carolina has concluded are dangerous levels of chemicals, and that the Grahams should no longer use the water. But then the Grahams started to experience the sadly familiar behavior that will prove that their government is not protecting them, and in fact is behaving more like an advocate for polluters.  For example:

The Very Real Danger of Synthetic Drugs

Earlier this week, a federal criminal complaint was filed by prosecutors against a former smoke shop owner and her employee over the death of a young man who smoked synthetic marijuana purchased from the shop located within a west suburban mall. That young man was Max Dobner, an excellent college student, loyal brother, loving son and fine young man who made the simple mistake of believing that this synthetic product purchased at his local mall was both legal and safe. If Max had any clue as to how dangerous this product was he would have never tried it. I can say this with confidence because our firm had the honor of representing Max's family in a civil lawsuit for his wrongful death.

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