Articles Posted in Groundwater contamination

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for water-2296444_1920.jpgTens of thousands of Americans will learn this year that the water just underneath their home-their groundwater-is contaminated with chemicals that some nearby factory dumped probably decades ago, and left to bleed down through the soil, infiltrate the groundwater, and ultimately migrate into your neighborhood.

I’ve been representing families in exactly this predicament for nearly 18 years. This is what I’ve learned they should be doing/asking in response to this news:

(1) Talk to an experienced environmental lawyer about your legal rights and options. Contaminated groundwater, and what to do about it, involves some complicated legal, scientific and sometimes political issues. Also, while you are going to need access to accurate information, and quickly, in order to make good decisions to protect you family, those most likely to have the information-the polluter and sometimes government-may not want to give it to you. A lawyer can help you get it.

I’ve been working for nearly 18 years helping families in American neighborhoods use our court system to force the companies that polluted their water to clean it up. Despite all the anguish that having contaminated water initially caused these families, and despite the truly reprehensible behavior of some of the polluters who caused the contamination, I’ve always known one source of hope and pride: the American belief that everyone in this country has the right to clean water. We back up this belief with a host of laws–like the federal Clean Water Act–and regulations that compel our government agencies and courts to honor the right to clean water, even if it means forcing a polluter to spend millions of dollars to restore clean water to a neighborhood.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for bhaktapur-909812_1280.jpgNow, it’s certainly a fair criticism–I’ve voiced it regularly–that our “clean water” laws could be stronger, enforced more vigilantly, or applied more thoughtfully, to help the disadvantaged in our communities. But the very fact that we have these laws at all, available for enforcement by courts who take them seriously in the great majority of cases in which I have been involved or of which I am aware, separates us from most countries in the world.

We Americans are often stunned to learn that the access to clean water which most of us take for granted is not shared by many in the rest of the world. As reported by an extraordinary organization called “Charity: Water”, there are more than 663 million people in the world who live daily without access to clean water.

I want to take a moment to recognize McHenry County, IL, and its Public Health Administrator, Michael Hill, for disclosing on the County’s website what it calls “Groundwater Contamination Incidents”. http://ow.ly/Gb7v30cyNOF

countryside-2252029_1920.jpgMcHenry, while a fast developing county, is not far-removed from its roots as essentially a rural community, where most residents drew their water directly from the ground, and so contaminated groundwater was a very big deal, indeed. It still is.

As you can see, McHenry and Hill have itemized 11 such “Incidents”, and interested citizens can click onto any one of them, and see a host of relevant documents, including environmental test results, newspaper articles, government correspondence, etc., as to each one of them. (I’m trusting that the County has identified all of the “Incidents” that it should, and that it adds new documents to each “Incident” page as they become available.)

glass-of-water-252x300.jpgThe great majority of families in the rural United States, and many other families, besides, depend on water coming directly from the ground for their everyday living needs. The groundwater also furnishes an emergency supply of clean water all over the country, in the event of contamination of the public water supply by, for example, a catastrophic accident or terrorist attack. So all of us should care about keeping the groundwater clean and safe for human use.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the purity of our groundwater is industrial pollution–for example, factories that dump degreasing chemicals, solvents, plasticizers or volatile organic compounds; gas stations whose underground tanks leak petroleum; landfills whose un-lined bottoms provide no barrier against the migration of toxic chemicals directly into the groundwater; and farming operations that saturate the ground with pesticides and herbicides that gradually sink into the groundwater.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) has compiled a list of the chemicals most frequently found to be contaminating the groundwater; the typical sources of those chemicals; and the threats to human health that they present. If your family depends upon the groundwater, please take a good look at this list. https://water.usgs.gov/edu/groundwater-contaminants.html

Thumbnail image for fb49346c015be8c88fa807dd31907a0b.jpgFifty percent of Americans depend on groundwater for daily use in their homes, i.e., drinking, showering, etc. Unfortunately, the quality and safety of our groundwater is under increasing threat from a variety of man-made sources, with potentially grave risk to the health of those in our family who may be exposed to the contamination. Please take a moment to consider whether you live near any of these common sources of groundwater contamination:

  • Old industrial sites: There are over 20,000 known abandoned and uncontrolled hazardous waste sites in the US. Many were the site years ago of the reckless disposal of toxic chemicals, which by now have had years to migrate into local groundwater.
  • Landfills: Many landfills-and especially those which accepted waste before 1980 — are a danger to groundwater. Why? Because these landfills typically accepted dangerous chemicals (even though it was forbidden) and were not lined at the bottom, to prevent leakage of the chemicals directly into groundwater.
  • Underground storage tanks: There are an estimated 10 million buried storage tanks in the US, many containing gasoline, oil and other toxic chemicals which, if given enough time, will seep through the tank’s walls, and into the groundwater.

Pollutants in groundwater can travel between hundreds of feet from their source to, in extreme cases, two miles or more. So, if you live near any of these common sources of groundwater contamination, and your family depends on the groundwater for daily home use, please consult your state’s environmental regulator or the US EPA, to learn whether they pose a serious risk to your family.

http://www.groundwater.org/get-informed/groundwater/contamination.html

human-771601_1920.jpgAccording to the non-profit Environmental Working Group, California’s public water systems in the San Joaquin Valley and urban areas like LA and San Bernardino and San Mateo counties are contaminated with a very dangerous, cancer-causing chemical known as 1,2,3 trichloropropane (“TCP”). Evidently, the TCP is a remnant of a chemical manufactured by Dow Chemical and Shell Oil.

The California State Water Board is proposing to limit the allowable concentration of TCP in drinking water to 5 parts per trillion. Fine. But who’s going to clean up the TCP? Are Dow and Shell responsible for the TCP in the water systems? The Water Board should also be looking into that. Because it’s not enough to just tell people how dangerous TCP is……the point is to get the TCP out of their water as soon as possible.

http://californiahealthline.org/multimedia/public-water-systems-polluted-with-123-tcp/

family-629924_1280.jpgI’ve been doing environmental contamination cases for about 20 year now, and have talked to hundreds of families who have gotten the bad news that there is a dangerous chemical in their water, air or yard. What I have learned over the process of talking to these people and being their lawyer in court, is that there are a series of questions that families need to get answers to in order to make good decisions to protect their home and family. Those 10 critical questions are:

1) What is the chemical contaminating my home and how dangerous is it? Depending on the kind of chemical, the dangers can be very extreme or very minimal. For example, there is a family of chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including TCE and PCE, that have been studied for years and whose dangers are fairly well known. Others are not so well known. You need to insist on being told what specific chemicals are involved because then you can start getting answers to the question: how dangerous is it? This is especially important if you have children. Recent studies have shown that many of these chemicals are more dangerous to children because their immune systems are not fully formed, and they don’t process toxins as efficiently as adults. If you are dealing with one of these chemicals, it’s very important that you know because that drives what kind of protections you will need to insist on for your family.

2) How long has my family been exposed to this toxic chemical? Why do you need to know this? Because for most of these chemicals, the longer the exposure the greater the danger, especially for children. Many of these chemicals are odorless and tasteless, and you would never know you are being exposed to them. You need someone to tell you how long the chemical has been in your home, because that lets you know how concerned you should be about health issues.

For the last 17 years, I and a team of lawyers have been representing families threatened by TCE contamination in their water supply, in the groundwater underneath their homes, and in the air inside their homes (called “vapor intrusion”). Recent reports in the media unfortunately describe how TCE, disposed of years ago in Nonantum, Massachusetts has seeped into the groundwater about 60 feet below the surface, and, after turning into gas (‘vapor”), has risen back up through the soil and intruded into the breathing space of area homes.

Having known many hundreds of families over the years who were horrified to receive such news about TCE contamination in their homes and communities, my heart goes out to the families of Nonantum. I know many of them are scared- “What can this chemical do to me and my family?” they will ask. They have important questions that deserve answers such as: “How long has this contamination been in my neighborhood, and in my home, and who is responsible?” And they might well be angry- “Why didn’t someone in government protect us from this, or at least warn us that this could happen?”

With exactly these anxieties in mind, I want to provide some information to the people of Nonantum who are dealing with this, so they might understand what is going on, and how better to protect themselves. Here are some important things I have learned over the years:

This is about the importance of clean water to sustain health and life; how we as Americans assume (often mistakenly) that we will always have it; and an extraordinary young man named Seth Maxwell who founded Thirst Project, which is dedicated to the simple but powerful idea that clean water is everyone’s right. We take many things for granted as Americans.  One of them is clean water.  To drink. To cook. To bathe. To wash things.  Clean water will always be there for us…at least that’s what we think. But many Americans are learning the hard way that what we take for granted can be taken from us.  For example, the drought in California.  The water shortage it has caused is nothing short of frightening.  Not enough water to grow crops, or put out fires.  Not enough water to pipe to communities.  If the drought is not resolved soon–and no one thinks it will be–then California families will find other places to live.  They will conclude that, without water, it is just not safe to live in California anymore.  And so the state that everyone once wanted to live in will be a state that many will want to leave.  For their own safety. Another example are the water supplies throughout the United States that today are badly contaminated by years of industrial chemical dumping.  These are millennia-old aquifers flowing underground, which, for as long as there have been humans on the planet, have supplied them life-giving water.  But, over the last 100 years, polluting companies have badly damaged these aquifers by dumping millions of gallons of toxins, and allowing them to seep ever deeper into the ground, until they render the water in the aquifer unusable.  Some of these aquifers can be cleaned up–but it will take decades, typically.  Some aquifers, for all practical purposes, will never be cleaned up.  I have worked as a lawyer for many hundreds of families who were devastated to learn that their aquifer had been taken from them by chemical contamination. They had to find another way to try to get clean water.  It is a horrible betrayal of what they thought it meant to be an American. Yet, for all the unsettling news about our access to clean water here, we are in dramatically better shape than much of the rest of the world.  Beyond the United States, there are an estimated 1 billion people who do not have access to clean water.  1 billion people.  The number is almost too large to even comprehend. Yet, unlike Americans, many of these 1 billion are not shocked or angry to know that they have no clean water.  Sadly, they never had clean water in the first place.  They grew up with no expectation that clean water would be there for them….let alone a belief that clean water was their right. And so they drink and cook with and bathe in water that is not fit for humans.  Because it is all that they have.  The consequences are as predictable as they are devastating:  for these people, water is not the source of healing and nourishment, as it was intended to be; instead, it is the reason people get sick and die–especially, children.  Children die by the thousands around the world each day for the shockingly simple reason that there was no clean water–or no water at all–for them to drink. Thirst Project was founded by a man named Seth Maxwell and 7 of his college friends.  They are young people armed with determination, energy, brains and an unflinching passion which recognizes that people everywhere–not just in America–have the right to clean water.  Their noble and ambitious goal is to “eradicate the global water crisis.”  They do it by mobilizing young people–mostly high school and college-aged–to raise money and awareness, all aimed at building fresh water wells in developing countries and communities. As a result of their efforts, Thirst Project is the world’s leading youth water activism organization. One of their projects has focused on Swaziland, a country whose 1.25 million population is ravaged by a lack of access to clean water, which contributes significantly, for example, to the fact the life expectancy is only 48-years-old, and the mortality rate of children under age five is a shocking 80/1000. In 2012, Maxwell and his Thirst Project partners embarked on a mission to raise $50 million to supply the entire country with clean water.  The entire country.  Which will make a profound difference and save, literally, tens of thousands of lives. Thirst Project is doing its good work through projects in many other countries as well, such as India, Uganda, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Kenya and Columbia. I invite you to read and learn more about Maxwell and his Thirst Project and to find a way to join them in their important work.  Because once we say–as we must–that everyone else in the world has the same human right to clean water that Americans do, and once we recognize–as we must–the terrible price that is paid when that right is violated, then we realize that there is work to do…and it’s all of our jobs to do it.

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