Congress Attacks Drinking Water

by Sharon Guynup

Three years ago, North Stamford, Connecticut residents learned that their drinking water contained high levels of two long-banned, cancer-causing pesticides. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigators found toxic chlordane and dieldrin leaching from a former industrial dump – now a public park.

Elsewhere in the Northeast, millions of people along New York’s Hudson River and New Jersey’s Passaic River struggle with the industrial legacy of toxic PCB and dioxin pollution. In Pennsylvania, water treatment plants recently discharged radioactive natural gas drilling wastewater into the Monongahela and Susquehanna rivers – waterways serving Pittsburgh, Baltimore and nearly seven million people with drinking water.

Americans overwhelmingly want such problems solved. Safe drinking water was of serious concern to 84 percent of respondents in a recent Gallup poll that also ranked water pollution as the top U.S. environmental concern.

However, Congress is aggressively seeking to undo our clean water laws. Numerous bills passed this year by the GOP-led U.S. House of Representatives have ignored well-established scientific evidence and health risks in an attempt to dismantle or delay regulations that keep pollutants out of America’s water.

The current war on clean water is part of a GOP deregulation agenda that screams “job killer!” at any environmental protection. Both Senate and House Republicans make no secret of their ultimate goal: to end all environmental regulation and abolish the EPA.

The REINS Act is the scariest of these initiatives. It’s been flying under the media radar, embedded in both Senate and House plans for “job creation.” It would require a Congressional vote on any regulation with an annual economic impact of $100 million or more – that’s 50 to 100 votes per year – creating a scheduling nightmare that would make passage of any new federal regulation virtually impossible.

Under the Act, if one house rejected or failed to vote within 70 working days on a rule, it would “be dispatched to the regulatory graveyard,” notes The Washington Post. REINS will essentially return environmental regulation to 1890s standards – when corporations polluted with impunity.

While advertised as money savers, these attempts at deregulation are thinly-veiled corporate giveaways that will bolster industry profits at the expense of our families’ health. These attacks on Clean Air and Clean Water act protections, if passed, would cause tens of thousands of premature deaths annually. Bipartisan analyses have repeatedly shown that the cost of environmental regulation is exponentially cheaper than the costs of toxic cleanup and medical care.

Americans want healthy lives for themselves and their children – and that means protecting our water supply. But EPA is under intense pressure from Congress and corporate lobbies not to do their job. As a result, millions of us ingest toxic traces of pesticide, rocket fuel, arsenic, heavy metals, and industrial and waste treatment chemicals each day. Not because they’re safe, but because EPA has only gotten around to testing 114 of the 315 pollutants found in U.S. tap water. There are no standards for the rest.

Last year, EPA finally regulated perchlorate – the first chemical regulated by EPA in 15 years. This rocket fuel is known to cause neurological problems in babies and pollutes drinking water in 26 states. Since 1996, the fiscally- and resource-strapped agency has reviewed just 138 chemicals, and failed to set drinking water safety standards for any of them; these chemicals collectively pollute the drinking water of over 110 million Americans.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson openly admits such failings. In a New York Times interview she agreed that the nation’s water doesn’t meet public health goals, and that enforcement of water pollution laws is unacceptably low.

Americans clearly want, and have a right to safe drinking water, free of dangerous chemicals. EPA must be strengthened – not abolished – and meet its Congressionally-appointed duty to enforce clean water laws. The agency needs to protect public health by speeding research and regulation of hazardous industrial contaminants.

Of course, this can’t happen until Americans stand up to polluting industries and their political allies in Congress who support dangerous legislation like the REINS Act.

Sharon Guynup’s writing has appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times Syndicate, Scientific American, The Boston Globe, and © 2011.

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