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2009-10-22

Toxic Waters: Regulatory Absence Allows Chemical, Coal and Farm Industries to Pollute US Water Supplies

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We speak to New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg about the latest in his investigative series "Toxic Waters," which examines the worsening pollution in the nation’s water systems. Duhigg joined us last month to discuss how chemical companies have violated the Clean Water Act more than 500,000 times in the last five years, most without punishment. Since then he has written articles focusing on how coal-fired power plants and large farms are threatening the nation’s drinking water. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

We turn now to New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg. For the past several months, he has been working on a series titled “Toxic Waters,” examining the worsening pollution in the nation’s water systems. Charles Duhigg joined us last month to discuss how chemical companies have violated the Clean Water Act more than 500,000 times in the last five years. Most of the violations have gone unpunished, with state regulators taking significant action in just three percent of all cases.

Since then, he has written articles focusing on how coal-fired power plants and large farms are threatening the nation’s drinking water. The Times revealed that 313 coal-fired power plants have violated the Clean Water Act since 2004, but 90 percent of those plants were not fined or otherwise sanctioned. No federal regulations specifically govern the disposal of power plant discharges into waterways or landfills.

AMY GOODMAN:

As for farms, runoff from all but the largest farms is essentially unregulated under the Clean Water Act. Agricultural runoff is the single largest source of water pollution in the nation’s rivers and streams. Nearly 20 million Americans fall ill each year from waterborne parasites, viruses or bacteria, including those stemming from human and animal waste.

Well, Charles Duhigg of the New York Times joins us here in our firehouse studio.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Thank you so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN:

Your articles are also supported by an editorial today in the New York Times about the significance of the 1972 Clean Water Act, how it has to be improved, and the significance of your pieces. Start off by talking about Allegheny Energy, the coal-fired plant in Masontown, Pennsylvania.

CHARLES DUHIGG:

This is one of the largest and, for a long time, one of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the United States. And over the last couple of years, we’ve made great advances in how we clean air pollution. So Allegheny, this plant which is called Hatfield’s Ferry, as well as a number of other plants across the nation, have installed these things called scrubbers. And what scrubbers are is it’s basically they spray water and chemicals through the chimneys and take out a lot of the air pollution before it escapes into the sky.

The problem is that when you spray that stuff in there, and sort of the water and the pollution collects at the bottom, you have to do something with it. And what we found is that, increasingly, that pollution and waste is being dumped into nearby rivers and lakes, or it’s being put into large ponds or landfills, where it can also seep through the ground into drinking water supplies. So what the concern is, is that we’re moving pollution perhaps just from the air to the water, and we’re not really solving the problem as robustly as the nation should.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

But then, in terms of being able to regulate these plants in terms of water discharges, what has the federal government done?

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Well, the federal government — there are solutions out there. There are systems called zero discharge emission systems that would prevent any pollution from making it into the water or the air. But the federal government has not created any rules for power plants, and this has been a big issue. Way back in 2000, the EPA was poised, and in fact had drafted a rule, to specially regulate pollution, water pollution and other types of pollution, from power plants, but the energy industry pushed back pretty significantly. That rule was shelved, and there’s been no rules designed for power plants since then.

Now, Lisa Jackson, who’s the new head of the EPA under President Obama, has said that by the end of this year she will issue new rules on water pollution from power plants and that she’s going to make a determination whether the waste that comes out of power plants should be considered hazardous waste. If it’s considered hazardous waste, a whole new set of rules will be applied to it. But as for right now, there’s no special rules for power plants.

AMY GOODMAN:

You write that only one in forty-three power plants across the nation must limit how much barium that they dump into nearby waterways — talk about the significance of barium — and that 90 percent of hundreds of coal-fired power plants have violated the Clean Water Act and were not fined or otherwise sanctioned. But start with the barium.

CHARLES DUHIGG:

That’s exactly right. Barium is a chemical. The waste from power plants is essentially what is left over when you burn coal. And as we all know, coal is a relatively dirty mineral. It’s very dense. When you burn it, a lot of bad stuff comes off, a lot of minerals — barium, arsenic, other minerals. Barium is one that the government has said causes health problems. It can affect your organs. It can cause skin rashes and other problems. Arsenic is another mineral that we see a lot in the byproduct, the waste from coal. Because the Clean Water Act doesn’t say you must limit certain types of chemicals, a lot of power plants emit barium, arsenic and other things, but there’s no limit in the law on how much they can put out. And so, as a result, they can essentially dump as much as they want into nearby rivers. And power plants are usually by rivers, because they need a lot of water to produce energy.

Now, the point that you raise is that a lot of regulators have tried to use the Clean Water Act to regulate and rein in the pollution, the water pollution, that comes out of power plants. But the Clean Water Act, like any law, is only as good as you enforce it. And what we found by looking at our records — and we had built this big database — was that hundreds and hundreds of plants have violated their Clean Water Act permit and have never been punished for it. Or if they have been punished, they’ve been punished to the tune of about, you know, couple thousand dollars or maybe $20,000, when these are firms that bring in billions of dollars in profits.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

You mentioned arsenic. And in some cases, you found, in Ohio and North Carolina, that there were releases of arsenic as much as eighteen times above federal limits?

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Well, actually, this comes from EPA data. And what they found was that near landfills where power plants have dumped the waste from generating electricity, arsenic has seeped into the groundwater. And you’re exactly right, sometimes the level of arsenic detected in the groundwater was eighteen times higher than the federal limit. They said that for some populations, they were at an exposed cancer risk that was 2,000 times higher than the approved — than what EPA says we should be exposed to.

AMY GOODMAN:

That’s an EPA report itself.

CHARLES DUHIGG:

That’s EPA data, right.

AMY GOODMAN:

Says that people living near some power plant landfills have a 2,000 times higher rate of cancer?

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Risk of cancer.

AMY GOODMAN:

Risk of cancer.

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Right.

AMY GOODMAN:

Than federal health standards.

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Right. This is a huge — and the reason why we wrote about power plants and why we’re talking about power plants today is, power plants are the single largest source of toxic pollution in the nation. I mean, when you think about it, it’s kind of hard to believe, because we assume that garbage or, you know, sort of what comes out of our house, but it’s actually power plants. They burn coal all day long. Coal is — has a lot of byproducts. So, creating special rules for power plants would make sense, because it is such a big source of toxic emissions, more than chemical plants, more than concrete plans, anything else.

AMY GOODMAN:

And the power of the coal lobby?

CHARLES DUHIGG:

The power of the coal lobby and the energy lobby is fairly significant. They — I mean, it’s one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, DC. Now, that being said, it’s important to always remember, everything that we do in a large part is powered because of coal. America is the Saudi Arabia of coal. When we’re able to plug in our Blackberry and turn on the lights and not think about it, it’s because we have so much coal and because we burn it. But there are very serious environmental byproducts from that, and if they’re not regulated, people suffer.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

Another issue that you’ve been touching on in your articles has been farming and the impact especially of factory farms on drinking water. You went to Morrison, Wisconsin —

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Right.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

— where there’s 41,000 dairy cows in Brown County. And you talked to Lisa Barnard, who says, “Sometimes it smells like a barn coming out of the faucet.”

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Yeah.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

What are these factory farms doing to the drinking water?

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Well, one of the biggest — these large farms, one of the biggest byproducts is, cows produce a lot of manure. And particularly now, because cows are fed high-protein grains, they produce liquid manure. You’ve got to do something with this manure. You’ve got to sweep it away and put it to — dispose of it. And so, what a lot of farmers do is they spray it on fields, and they use it to grow corn that they feed to the cows, and so there’s kind of a nice cycle there. But when you have so many cows producing so much manure — and each cow produces the amount of manure in a year equivalent to about nineteen people, so in Brown County, which is a relatively sparsely populated county, they produce as much manure as a huge, huge city — they have to do something with it. And so, they spray it on the ground. Some people — some regulators there feel that they spray too much of it on the ground. The soil can only absorb so much of the manure. And so, when the soil reaches capacity, the bacteria and the other bad stuff in the manure filters through into drinking water supplies. And then, when people go to their wells, they drink water that smells like manure.

There was a woman — one woman told me a story of — she was giving her six-month-old daughter a bath, and she only breastfed her. She didn’t drink any water, but the infant sucked the dish rag that had bacteria in it and ended up being hospitalized. A field across the street has spread manure a couple days earlier. Particularly in winter months — Wisconsin is very cold. In winter months the ground freezes. They have to continue applying the manure, because they’ve got to put it someplace. And then if there’s an early thaw, it just can seep through the ground very, very quickly.

AMY GOODMAN:

And you write that nineteen-and-a-half million Americans fall ill each year as a result of the waterborne parasites, the viruses, the bacteria.

CHARLES DUHIGG:

That’s right. That was a study that was done that tried to estimate how many people become ill.

AMY GOODMAN:

Twenty-million people?

CHARLES DUHIGG:

I mean — and when you think about it, most of us who do get sick, we probably don’t realize it, right? You go out, you have an upset stomach for a couple days, and you say, “Oh, I must have eaten something bad the other night.” And you don’t even think about your water, because we don’t assume that water contains bad things in America. And for most of us, it’s just a couple days’ inconvenience. But for some populations — the elderly, the young, people with diseases or people with immune problems — these diseases, this exposure can be enormously dangerous. And over a lifetime, as you’re exposed to other things, to arsenic, to carcinogens that are in water, they end up impacting our health in ways that we probably don’t understand.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And what were, from what you can tell, the efforts of the Bush administration over the past eight years to deal with some of these problems, as I’m sure EPA scientists and other government scientists were discovering the spread of the problem?

CHARLES DUHIGG:

The Bush administration was notably inactive on environmental issues. Now, I will say the reductions in enforcement of the Clean Water Act started under the Clinton administration. So this isn’t a purely Democrat versus Republican issue. That being said, and this has been fairly well documented by my colleagues in other papers as well as at the New York Times, the EPA under the Bush administration was notably inactive on enforcing a lot of environmental regulations.

Lisa Jackson, the new head of the EPA, has said that reversing this is a huge priority for her. And so, we’re seeing a lot more science-based standards coming into the agency. But the problem is that, you know, it takes a long time to build up a robust system. I mean, you can — it’s like, you know, building a newspaper or building a company. It takes a long time to build it up. You can destroy it in just a couple of years. And so, we’re probably a couple years away from really having the powerful regulation that the Clean Water Act depends on to survive.

AMY GOODMAN:

Finally, Charles Duhigg, you’ve done this series of pieces. Summarize again —- you were on for the first pieces, but summarize the trajectory you’ve taken in each of these pieces -—

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Sure.

AMY GOODMAN:

— and what you’ve looked at of the nation’s water.

CHARLES DUHIGG:

We started by looking at a chemical named atrazine, which is a pesticide, that is the most prevalent pesticide in American waters, and basically looked at whether the EPA was regulating this strongly enough. There’s a lot of new science that says that even at very small doses this can cause — atrazine is related to, or seems somehow connected to, birth defects. And so, the basic question there was, is the scientific system at the EPA working? And some people suggest no.

Then we looked at the Clean Water Act and whether it’s being enforced. And we found that the Clean Water Act is being violated hundreds of thousands of times every year and that those aren’t being punished. And so, as a result, the law doesn’t have any teeth.

Then we started looking at the biggest sources of pollution. We looked at farms and power plants, which we’ve discussed. We’re going to be doing a piece on sewer overflows, which is a huge source of water pollution.

And then, finally, later this year we’ll look at the Safe Drinking Water Act and issues around that law and whether it’s working. And we’re just going through the data now, but there’s a lot of reasons to believe that in the last ten or fifteen years the world has been transformed, in terms of the chemicals that we can now use and that we have at our disposal, in terms of how dangerous they are at very, very small concentrations, and that these laws that were created in the 1970s have not been updated to deal with these new threats.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And, in fact, I recall when I did a lot of research on the toxic releases as a result of the World Trade Center collapse, there’s thousands and thousands of chemicals for which there are no safety limits that the federal government has.

CHARLES DUHIGG:

That’s exactly right.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

There’s only a very few number of them that are actually regulated in that sense.

CHARLES DUHIGG:

That’s absolutely right. And a number — I mean, what’s interesting is that we have lived through the greatest chemical revolution in the history of the world. Right? I mean, we’ve really solved — and this has been wonderful in many, many ways. We’ve solved how to create new chemicals and have used that power to really improve the world. But chemicals are dangerous things. And the more complex the chemical, the more dangerous it is at smaller and smaller concentrations. So a lot of these laws, a lot of these protections that were created the 1970s that dealt with arsenic or barium or things that we knew were dangerous and have existed for thousands of years or since the world began, those laws were designed for those chemicals, and they weren’t designed for these new things that are emerging.

So, as a result, the EPA system, which is called TSCA, for analyzing new chemicals and analyzing the threats they represent, is completely broken. The GAO has said that it’s broken. Congress has said that it’s broken. Lisa Jackson has said that it’s broken. They’re trying to redesign that system, but there are thousands and thousands of chemicals that essentially the government has never analyzed, which are part of our daily life and are part of our daily environment.

AMY GOODMAN:

And the power of the lobbyists, I go back to, because we see it with the health insurance industry now, we see it operating overtime and overdrive in Washington, DC. In 2000 they had a tremendous effect when the Bush administration was going to issue stricter controls. Their lobbying efforts gutted that, scuttled that. What makes you think the same won’t happen now?

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Well, I think what’s happening now is, there’s been a lot of meetings. And, you know, no industry wants more regulation. It just creates more cost, right? I mean, I think anyone who works in any industry thinks, oh, we do a pretty good job, we don’t need the government coming in. So it’s understandable that every industry would fight back against regulation.

What’s happened in the last year — and part of this is just President Obama has been elected, they see the writing on the wall, and they know they have to change, but also a realization on the part of industry itself that there has to be a cop at the table. Is it — the chemical manufacturers and the industry has actually sat down with a number of the environmental groups to say we need a more rational system here. So I think there’s a lot of reasons to believe that we’re going to see reform, in part because the EPA has said reform’s coming, whether you want it or not, but in part because the chemical industry has said, “We either have to get on the bus, or we’re going to be left behind.” And there seem to be a lot of good faith efforts on their part to come up with a system.

Now, obviously they want to influence, right? You want to have a seat at the table, because otherwise you don’t get to say what the outcome looks like. But the environmentalists that I respect, that I speak to, say that they have these conversations, and they think that there is a real dialogue happening.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, we want to thank you for being with us. And as you head back to the Times, how is the mood there with a hundred people about to be —

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Yeah, it’s —- you know, it’s -—

AMY GOODMAN:

— pushed out of the newsroom? How many do you have in the newsroom?

CHARLES DUHIGG:

I think we have almost — over 1,200, I believe.

AMY GOODMAN:

And a hundred are going to be axed by December?

CHARLES DUHIGG:

A hundred are going to be either voluntarily or take a buyout. You know, it’s — this project that we’ve done — and we’ve spoken about this before — we spent ten months building a database, and there were probably seven or eight people involved in it.

AMY GOODMAN:

More extensive than the EPA.

CHARLES DUHIGG:

More extensive than the EPA. And one of the things that readers said that was really encouraging is they said, you know, “Thank goodness the Times is doing this type of work. It’s expensive.” We’re living in this new world, and we’re trying to figure out how the newspaper can be economically viable in this new world. For anyone who’s watching who thinks that what the Times does is important, it’s important to — we don’t do a very good job of saying, “Buy a subscription,” but if you buy a subscription, you’re supporting the Times, or the Journal or Democracy Now! or anything. You have to economically support the media institutions that you believe in. And what we’re seeing right now is that if people forget to support those institutions, we have to fire journalists.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

And the reality is that there are virtually no media companies left in America that could spare seven people to work for months and months —

CHARLES DUHIGG:

That’s exactly right.

JUAN GONZALEZ:

— on one project to be able to come up with a story.

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Yeah, I mean, there’s a hand — it used to be, every major city used to have a newspaper that did genuine investigative reporting. Now there’s, you know, two or three newspapers in this nation that really do it. And you don’t know the stories you don’t see, right? Nobody wakes up and says, “Oh, gosh, there was an important story on water, but nobody wrote it.” It’s very important that people support — we’re so used to, at this point, getting our media for free over the internet and saying it’s such a wonderful world that we don’t have to pay for the news. But when you don’t pay for the news, people suffer, or the journalists suffer. And I know that public radio is dealing with this. You guys are dealing with this. We’re dealing with this. If readers and viewers believe in media, buy a subscription, send in donations.

AMY GOODMAN:

And thanks also for helping to explain why people regularly now, every week, are being arrested throughout places like — states like West Virginia, being arrest protesting, for example, mountaintop removal, coal power plants, etc.

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Yeah. And there’s no one to cover it.

AMY GOODMAN:

Charles Duhigg, we want to thank you for being with us.

CHARLES DUHIGG:

Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN:

Award-winning reporter for the New York Times, the author of the new series about the worsening pollution in American waters. It’s called "Toxic Waters."

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