Small Streams

Odorless and Colorless
September 13, 2009, 6:39 am
Filed under: business, ecology, health | Tags: ,

The Times’ reporting on violations of clean water regulations is nothing short of devastating. Clean water is something you take for granted, but the article by Charles Duhigg is a vial of smelling salts to make us think of an issue too easily ignored. The article is a combination of research, moving stories of people victimized by a rigged system, and lots of hand-wringing or silence by politicians and public officials.

In Charleston, West Virginia, the water is unfit to bathe in, let alone to drink.The poor water quality is due — not according to coal companies but anyone with a shred of scientific capacity — to coal companies injecting slurry back in to the ground. State DEPs and the EPA have been hamstrung in their efforts to police bad behavior. According to one regulator . . .

“We were told to take our clean water and clean air cases, put them in a box, and lock it shut. Everyone knew polluters were getting away with murder. But these polluters are some of the biggest campaign contributors in town, so no one really cared if they were dumping poisons into streams.”

So the costs were externalized onto the people of Charleston, who can’t take a shower for fear of getting a rash, or take a drink for fear of losing their teeth or gall bladders.

The problem with enforcing the regulations is that it’s not so apparent that our water is polluted. Toxic chemicals found in tainted water can be invisible. In the ’70s when The Clean Water Act was instituted, the problems were more apparent. Raw sewage made a better target than minuscule quantities of arsenic.

Regulations come with a cost. Fining and restricting coal mining activities will surely raise the price of coal, and therefore of electricity. The average utility user will bear the burden. But it beats having to use bottled water to brush your teeth. Plus, we’ll have the bonus of being awake.