This is about the importance of getting your well water tested, immediately, when there is even the possibility that it is contaminated. North Stamford, Connecticut, and Rockford, Illinois are half a country apart and have many other things that would seem to distinguish them from one another. But they have one thing profoundly in common: both have a serious groundwater contamination problem and need to quickly test families’ drinking water wells to see how far the contamination has spread, where it is coming from, and how many of the families are threatened by it. North Stamford In 2009, testing of a fraction of the 5,000 private drinking water wells in the North Stamford area revealed that “elevated levels” of dangerous pesticides had infiltrated the water used by those families for cooking, bathing, etc. [See this Stamford Advocate article dated July 27, 2011] While that’s obviously very troubling news for those families, it’s also very necessary news. Because now they know. Now they know that they have a serious problem, and can move quickly to protect themselves against this threat, and to demand a permanent solution. For example, they can minimize their exposure to the contaminated water (especially for kids) through the use of bottled water or filtered water. And they can demand that their government determine who or what is the source of this contamination, and make them pay for the clean, permanent water supply that those families now know that they need. But what about those thousands of families whose wells were not tested? I would imagine that, like the many families I have represented in groundwater contamination cases over the years, these families have anguished over questions like: “What if my water is contaminated, too?” “How will I feel about learning that I have been unknowingly exposing my family to this danger?” “If my water is found to be contaminated, will it hurt the value of my home?” “Can I afford to pay for the water test, and for whatever may be necessary to protect my family if I turn out to have a problem?” As families have struggled with these painful questions, many wells have gone untested. Either the cost of the water test ($350) or the fear of receiving a bad test result and having to deal daily with its consequences (lost market value, living on bottled water, etc.), is causing families to resist the testing upon which their very health and peace of mind may depend. Most unfortunate – and dangerous. Concerned about all these un-tested wells, the North Stamford city council has recently decided to dedicate $100,000 a year to well testing in the community. [See this May 26, 2011 Stamford Advocate article] Good job. With this action, the city council simultaneously emphasizes the importance of families knowing whether they have a problem, and takes away at least one excuse for not testing (i.e., the cost of the test). Also, many hundreds of additional test results will give local scientists a fighting chance to determine the source of the contamination…because the more information these scientists have about what chemicals may be in the wells, and whether the concentrations of those chemicals increase or decrease in certain directions, the easier it is to identify the source. Plus: home values which fall with the discovery of contamination in a neighborhood are never restored by pretending that there is no contamination. They are restored by getting rid of the contamination, which is a process that starts with testing to show where the contamination is. But, what took North Stamford and its residents so long to do more testing? This failure to test since 2009 has almost certainly left some families unnecessarily exposed to dangerous chemicals in their water and means that the city and its residents have lost more than two years in their effort to figure out who/what is responsible for this contamination and to make them pay for fixing the problem. Rockford Let’s hope the Rockford contamination gets addressed more quickly and responsibly. Rockford’s contamination appears for the moment to be smaller, and newer, than North Stamford’s. In late July 2011, after families in two homes smelled a strange odor in their water, testing showed that the water was indeed contaminated– with a dangerous chemical known as “benzene“. Government officials quickly notified the residents of some 200 nearby homes that they, too, might have contaminated water and that they should take precautions….like using bottled water, or filtering the water coming from their private well. Early reports are promising: the government says that it will move quickly to test more homes, and one news story notes that a local resident is already using bottled water….even for the family dog. [See this August 2, 2011 Rockford Register Star article] A good start. But all this means is that Rockford today is where North Stamford was in 2009. Now what? The bottom line is that Rockford must quickly test more wells, in order to find out who’s in harm’s way, and who’s responsible for this problem. That’s the government’s job. But the 200 families have a job, too: take this problem seriously, and hold the government’s feet to the fire. Get the testing done. Now. Then protect those who need protection. And start holding accountable whoever did this. Otherwise, two years from now, 200 families in Rockford will still be wondering if they have a problem, when timely testing in 2011 would have given them the answer, possibly spared them further exposure to a dangerous chemical, and taken them well down the road toward a permanent solution to their problem.
Texas recently became the first state to require drillers to disclose the chemicals they use to extract petroleum and gas from rock formations. See, Texas Fracking Bill While the fluids injected deep into the earth to recover oil and gas consist primarily of water and sand, they include mixtures of hundreds of different chemicals to facilitate the process. Congress exempted these chemicals from federal disclosure requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The precise composition of the fracking fluids, which vary within the industry, has been a closely guarded secret. What is known is that many of the fluids contain a variety of hazardous and toxic chemicals. Critics of the process are concerned that these harmful chemicals can end up in our drinking water and in our homes. Texas’ Tea Party Governor, Rick Perry, is the first governor to sign a disclosure law. He would seem an unlikely candidate to lead the charge for progressive change on matters pertaining to the environment, particularly given that his state is considered the home to the oil industry. But, is this really positive change or a sign that the industry and its political allies recognize, and are trying to diffuse, the building public pressure on this suspect and extremely lucrative practice. It should be noted that industry supported this bill, and the law itself allows industry to withhold proprietary information. Stay tuned.
After Congress passed the Superfund law in 1980, ostensibly to set up a system to clean up the most dangerous hazardous waste sites in the country, EPA created a system to evaluate the sites most deserving of attention in the form of government money for cleanup. That system, called the Hazard Ranking System (HRS), establishes a formula for evaluating how dangerous sites are to people and the environment. It looks at many things, like the chemicals involved, exposed populations, and others, and puts a mathematical value on them. If the site scores above a certain number it can be entitled to real attention in the form of immediate cleanup activity funded with government money. If the score is below that number, well………good luck. As we all know, quick action on the part of government is anything but that. But, if a site does not make the grade for what the government calls quick, the attention it will get from regulators is beyond slow. Sites can and do wallow around in the typical regulatory world for decades upon decades. Those affected are left in the cold; often, unknowingly exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals for years. One of the most direct and dangerous ways people are exposed to toxic chemicals is by breathing them in their homes. Ingestion in this way can be much more dangerous than drinking tainted water; and this is true for a number of reasons. On the one hand, exposure takes place non-stop. If the air in our home is filled with toxic chemicals, we and our children are taking them in 24/7, or at least whenever we’re home. Even while we’re sleeping. This is not true of exposure through tainted water. So, when toxicologists calculate the dose, or the amount of the toxic chemicals we take in, the doses can be very high. In addition, when we breathe toxic chemicals we immediately expose lung tissue which distributes the chemicals throughout our bodies. How do these chemicals get into the air in our homes is an obvious question. The answer quite often is through a process called vapor intrusion. Many of the most common and dangerous industrial chemicals contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Simply put, this means that they like to mix with air. Anyone who has filled their car with gas knows that gas contains VOCs because they smell them, and unfortunately ingest them, every time they fill up at the pump. All over the country companies have polluted the groundwater with VOCs, which are common industrial cleaning agents. When the polluted water runs beneath our homes it off-gases those chemicals into the air, they collect beneath and move into our homes. And unlike the gas station experience, they are odorless. We don’t even know its happening. Oddly enough, when EPA established the HRS it did not include vapor intrusion among the threats to be evaluated when determining the scoring system and prioritizing sites. That remains true today even though there are hundreds of sites all over the country where we know people have been and are breathing large amounts of toxic chemicals in their homes. Case in point. We are just finishing a lawsuit filed on behalf of hundreds of people in a small town in Indiana. These folks live in homes in the neighborhood of a factory. EPA had been looking at the site under its normal “slow boat to China” process for decades, going back to the mid-’80s. It never prioritized it. The company involved was allowed to drag its feet and do little or nothing for years on end. Even when the company tested the home of its plant manager and discovered cancer-causing chemicals, it concealed that information from others in the neighborhood for years. Finally, in 2008, testing was done in some of the homes in the neighborhood, widespread infiltration of the air in the homes with cancer-causing chemicals from the factory was discovered, and we and EPA have been working to require remedies in the homes and compensation for the families. But, the sad truth is that these folks were living with and breathing these chemicals for decades. They were raising their children in these homes and had no idea they were exposing them. Parents feel like they let their kids down. They feel that their government let them down. If there is any good news, it is that we can do something about this. EPA is currently considering including vapor intrusion in the HRS analysis. To say that it’s about time is to state the obvious. But, we must make sure that it does. Such an obvious and dangerous threat can no longer be ignored. We owe it to the folks in that small town in Indiana, to their children, and to ours.