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Articles Posted in Groundwater contamination

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 a 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 freshwater wells in developing countries and communities. As a result of their efforts, the 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.

Co-authored by Gregory Zimmer of The Collins Law Firm, P.C. Recently, the Luskin Center at UCLA released a study that highlighted the dangers of Los Angeles County’s water supply system. The results were staggering. Approximately 40% of community water providers in Los Angeles County drew water from a groundwater source that was contaminated beyond state-set drinking water standards–known as Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs)–at one or more points during the span of 2002-2010.1  Areas serviced by such community water providers include but are not limited to: El Monte, Glendale, Lancaster, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Pomona, Santa Clarita, and Santa Monica. Some common contaminants are Aluminum, Arsenic, Chloroform, Coliform (TCR), Manganese, Radon, and total trihalomethanes (TTHMs).2 Of every county in California, Los Angeles County has the greatest number of community water systems that rely on contaminated groundwater.1 Over a third of the water systems serving Los Angeles County rely entirely on groundwater. Such water systems are more common in small communities in the northern part of the county–an area troubled by local contamination and where there are few alternative sources for water. Small community water systems that serve fewer than 3,300 residents, the majority of which rely solely on groundwater, are found throughout the county–even in urban areas. Such water systems typically lack the technical, managerial, and financial capacity to overcome water treatment challenges and meet quality standards.1 Fortunately, most small systems draw from uncontaminated groundwater.3 However, most large community water systems serving the county partially rely on contaminated groundwater sources.1 While larger systems may have the resources to treat water, the costs to do so are projected to become a significant financial burden in the near future.1 Los Angeles’ groundwater contamination problem has the potential to disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities, low-income households, and the very young and elderly. Disadvantaged communities are populations that have low levels of formal education and experience linguistic isolation, poverty, and high unemployment.4 Individuals from such communities are more susceptible to illness from contaminated water and may be unable to access adequate medical care.4 Low-income households cannot afford to buy bottled water in the quantities necessary to substitute for their tap water. Children under the age of 10 and seniors older than 75 years of age are especially vulnerable to adverse health effects from exposure to contaminated drinking water.5 We believe you have the right to know what is in your drinking water, especially if the water content violates your own state’s drinking water standard. Therefore:

  1. If you are concerned about what is in your drinking water, contact your local water supplier for a current consumer confidence report
  2. For current EPA drinking water violation reports, visit the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS).

On May 14, 2015, in a federal courtroom in Greenville, North Carolina, coal combusting giant Duke Energy pled guilty to committing 9 environmental crimes for its years of illegal discharge of coal ash pollution throughout the State of North Carolina.  Duke Energy will also pay some $102 million in fines and restitution.1 So, a big win for the environment, right?  Duke Energy will finally stop threatening the well-being of the people of North Carolina, right? Not so fast. Let’s first examine what Duke Energy did to get charged with these crimes, and then see whether we think the punishment is going to cause Duke Energy to change its polluting ways. What Duke Energy Did As part of its guilty plea, Duke Energy agreed that it had engaged in certain misconduct.  Duke Energy’s agreement is documented in a “Joint Factual Statement” (between Duke Energy and the federal government).2 This is just some of the misconduct that Duke Energy agreed it had committed:

  • For years, Duke Energy “failed to properly maintain and inspect the two stormwater pipes underneath the primary coal ash basin at the Dan River Steam Station in Eden, North Carolina.  On February 2, 2014, one of those pipes [that was 60 years old] failed, resulting in the discharge of approximately 27 million gallons of coal ash wastewater and between 30,000 and 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River. The coal ash traveled more than 62 miles downriver…”3 (emphasis added).
  • From 1981 onward, Duke Energy either did not take seriously, or outright ignored, the repeated recommendations from its own consultants that these two pipes–including the one that failed, provoking an environmental disaster–be inspected for possible leakage and the possibility of failure.4

In March 2015, Syracuse University hydrology professor, Donald Siegel, and a team of other scientists published a fracking study in Environmental Science and Technology, the bottom line of which is, basically, “fracking is safe”. At least that’s the way that the pro-fracking forces are selling it. Specifically, Professor Siegel and his colleagues concluded that drinking water wells in Pennsylvania had not been contaminated with methane from nearby fracking wells. And they went further. They stated that their study was more rigorous than other—anti-fracking—studies, and implied that their study should be trusted more than the anti-fracking studies. As Siegel bragged: “Our data set is hundreds of times larger than data sets used in prior studies”—which had connected fracking to well water methane contamination—and that “may explain the difference in prior findings compared to our own.”1 Turns out that there is something else which “may explain the difference” between Siegel’s study and the anti-fracking studies—like who was paying Siegel to do his study in the first place. Siegel and his colleagues initially declared on the face of their March 2015 study that they had “no competing financial interest”-–i.e., meaning they had no financial interest which might be fairly viewed to influence how they did their study or reached its conclusion.1 However, the following month, they revealed the truth. And the truth is that:

· Siegel’s study was funded by a fracker. And not just any fracker, but a giant fracking company, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, the second-largest natural gas producer in the United States.

· As Siegel and his colleagues were forced to ultimately disclose in a “Correction” to their study, Chesapeake Energy “provid[ed] funding for the authors” of the study. Indeed, the “lead author [Siegel himself] was funded privately by Chesapeake” to do the study. That means that Chesapeake Energy didn’t, for example, provide Siegel’s employer, Syracuse University, a stipend to cover the study—no, it paid Siegel directly. And neither Siegel nor Chesapeake Energy has said how much he got paid “privately” to author conclusions so favorable to Chesapeake Energy.2

The LA Times and environmental advocacy group, Water Defense, recently combined to show what a sham so-called “environmental testing” can sometimes be, because it creates the illusion of protection for the people, when in truth there is very little, or maybe even none at all. In its May 2, 2015 story, The LA Times (and author Julie Cart) documented how, for two decades now, food crops in the Central Valley of California have been irrigated (sprayed) daily with millions of gallons of recycled water that had been used to help big oil companies try to discover crude oil.   In a nutshell, wastewater from oil fields is being used to grow food that winds up on our plates. 1 The oil companies and consortium of crop-growers think it’s a great deal.  The oil companies get paid (by the growers) to dispose of wastewater that they otherwise would have had to pay a lot of money to get rid of.  The growers save lots of money; they get this “water” from the oil companies for about half of what they pay for water from other sources. But this “water” is being sprayed on our food. We should care not so much about whether this practice is healthy for the bottom lines of oil companies and corporate growers, but whether it is healthy for the people who eat the food. So the question is:  “Is this half-priced oil wastewater safe to spray on the crops?” When you dig deep, as The LA times did, you find that the answer to this question is a resounding, “We have no idea.” The story starts off sounding good.  Both the growers and oil companies will tell you (as they told The LA times) that this water is treated and “tested” before it’s sprayed on the crops.  The growers will say that they test for pests and disease. Testing beyond that, they say, is up to the oil companies, For their part, the oil companies will say that they treat and test the water for whatever chemicals the government requires them to treat and test for. But is anyone testing specifically for the chemicals used by the oil companies in oil production?  Because we obviously also want to know if those chemicals are getting onto, or, worse, into, our food when it is growing out in the Central Valley fields. Sadly, it turns out that there is no testing for those chemicals.  Because the oil companies will not say what those chemicals are, no one tests to see if they are in the water sprayed on the crops.2 “You can’t find what you don’t look for”, The LA times quoted one scientist to say. 1 And so here we see the sham:  the oil companies and growers create the illusion of safety and responsibility by claiming to do all “required” testing…..even while they know that the “required” testing is grossly inadequate because it does not test for the presence of dangerous oil field chemicals. Until Water Defense’s work, the oil companies and growers had been able to say that there is “no proof” that oil field chemicals are in the water used to spray the crops.  But now there is proof.  Over the last two years, and throughout an 8-mile long canal over which oil field wastewater travels before being sprayed on the crops, Water Defense actually tested some of this water. And it found compounds that are toxic to humans, including acetone and methylene chloride–which are used as industrial solvents and to soften thick crude oil–as well as oil.  Methylene chloride is a potential human carcinogen. Not surprisingly, the growers and at least one oil company are crying foul over Water Defense’s work.  They say that Water Defense’s testing method was improper; the oil company says that it doesn’t use acetone and methylene chloride in its processes.  Good luck to them: Scott Smith, Water Defense’s chief scientist, has a resume that says he knows what he’s doing.  He’s consulted for EPA and other government agencies on more than 50 oil spills and spent two years studying the oil wastewater used in the Central Valley. Hopefully, very soon, the sham will end.  Hopefully, testing of oil field wastewater sprayed on crops will very soon include testing for dangerous oil field chemicals.  And then, hopefully, the people who eat the food sprayed with oil field chemicals can finally know what they have really been eating all these years and decide whether they want to keep doing it. 1 LA Times – “Central Valley’s Growing Concern: Crops Raise With Oil Field Water” (May 2, 2015) 2 In California, a new law will require such disclosure soon; but, for the last 20 years, these chemicals have remained a secret. As a result, those who for 20 years have eaten Central Valley food sprayed with oil field wastewater may have also been consuming undisclosed oil field chemicals, because no test revealed whether the chemicals were in the food.

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 reveal 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 bathtub, 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:

  • Why did North Carolina allow Duke Energy to store its 120 million tons of coal ash in unlined pits, making the groundwater underneath them–and the home water supplies that depend directly on the groundwater–sitting ducks for coal ash contamination?  Even if Duke Energy is ultimately determined to not be the source of the contamination, allowing coal ash to sit for years in unlined pits is absolutely indefensible.
  • What took so long for the State to require Duke Energy to test the groundwater around its coal ash pits for contamination?  It took the State until 2014 to pass the required-testing law–years after it foolishly allowed Duke Energy to dump its coal ash in the unlined pits.  While the State should never have allowed such dumping in the first place, having nevertheless allowed it, at the very least the State should have mandated regular groundwater testing…to see if its foolish capitulation to a powerful company was endangering residents.

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:

  1. The Grahams learn that DENR had the test results on the Grahams’ water–showing that the water was threatening the family’s health–for 52 days before bothering to tell the Grahams about it.  (And how long did DENR wait to even conduct the test of the Grahams’ water after it learned the information that caused the agency to want to do the testing in the first place?)
  2. DENR then tries to tell the Grahams that they shouldn’t worry about the contamination, because, even though the state defines the contamination as dangerous, the federal government does not.  In other words, DENR says to the Grahams:  “Even though we’ve told you that your water is so contaminated that you should stop using it, it really isn’t that dangerous after all.”  At best, this only confuses families that need clarity.  At worst, this is the state of North Carolina abandoning its own definition of what is dangerous to human health.

The U.S. Army is showing a disrespect that borders on hostility toward its neighbors who live near the Army’s Fort Gillem base just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. The Army’s decades-long failure to protect these families from life-threatening contamination—that the Army itself had caused—has forced the U.S. EPA last week to literally order the Army to finally do something to protect them. Here’s the story: For much of the time between 1940 and 2011, Army personnel indiscriminately dumped a staggering array of highly toxic chemicals–including the notorious carcinogen, TCE–at the Fort Gillem base. As a result, today, the legacy of the base is eight highly-contaminated areas, one of which is a 300-acre landfill that, all by itself, has at least 356 known chemical dump locations. Because the Army recklessly left these chemicals in the ground, the chemicals predictably bled down through the soil, infiltrated the underlying groundwater (forming at least three large “plumes” of contamination), and then oozed into nearby residential neighborhoods.  Neighborhoods full of families and kids.  Worse, many of these chemicals, such as TCE, are “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs). It has been known for years that VOCs vaporize, and then drift back upward from the groundwater in the form of gas, migrating through the soil, and surrounding and even penetrating overlying homes.  That means the nasty volatile chemicals could be in the air that people are breathing–both in their home and in their yard. Since at least 1992, the Army has known that the groundwater underneath these families was highly contaminated with Fort Gillem’s chemicals and that the people could be in danger from toxic gas.  For example, the Army found toxic vapors in the Fort Gillem soil as early as 1996 and even found them in the surrounding neighborhoods in 2003.  These results should have compelled the Army to immediately begin testing for toxic vapors inside of and surrounding the homes. But that didn’t happen. No, the Army didn’t start this vapor testing until the summer of 2014–more than 20 years after it first knew there was a problem.  And, when it finally did the testing, the Army found that most of the homes tested had toxic vapors inside them. The EPA’s written September 24, 2014 Order RCRA-04-2014-4251 documents just how thoroughly the Army’s contamination has inundated the surrounding neighborhoods, threatening the lives of the people who live there.  According to the EPA:

(1) The chemicals dumped at Fort Gillem “have been identified in the soils, sediments, surface water, groundwater, soil vapor, indoor air and ambient [i.e, outside] air in and around the residential properties near” Fort Gillem.  (see Order, p. 10, paragraph 13) (my emphasis).

(2) Those in danger from the contamination include “adults and children, with sensitive populations in women of child-bearing age and pregnant women […] both young children and the elderly may be included in a sensitive population group.”  (see Order, p. 10, paragraph 13 d).

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