Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Someone gets rich from your polluted drinking water

 Gen. George Washington had his headquarters in Newburgh, N.Y. Ever since, this town on the Hudson, an hour north of New York City, played a role in American history quite disproportionate to its small size. But in recent years, it has fallen on hard times. Its industry has disappeared. Its population is impoverished and crime-ridden. And now, on top of everything, its water supply contains carcinogenic chemicals. PFOS is an ingredient in fire fighting foam used extensively for training purposes at a nearby military base.

Newspaper reports usually focus on a single event. The drinking water woes in Newburgh, NY are reported without mentioning last year's drinking water disaster in Flint Michigan. In each case the story seeks out the guilty parties for this particular problem. In each case it is not too difficult to find the city or state officials or the bureaucrats at the Environmental Protection Agency whose negligence seriously endangered the health of the inhabitants in different cities and towns.

    But then you see a small notice that harmful chemicals are found in the water supply in other small towns in New York State where plastic plants are being blamed for polluting water supplies. That raises an interesting question: is the pollution of drinking water a widespread problem in our country? 

    According to the Environmental Protection Agency "threats to drinking water are increasing." The experience of people in Newburgh, NY or Flint, MI are not isolated events. Similar experiences with drinking water pollution are common all over the country.

    Are there common causes of drinking water pollution in these different locations? We can answer "Yes and No" to to that question. In Newburgh NY it was the National Guard training ground for firefighters that used excessive fire fighting foam and thereby polluted the town's water supply. In Flint Michigan corrosive water flowing through old lead pipes raised the lead levels in the drinking water. In a small town in Pennsylvania, Dimock, drinking water wells exploded because the water was polluted with methane from nearby fracking operations. In other places agricultural fertilizers are the pollutants. Elsewhere chemicals from plastic factories show up in drinking water. From place to place, the sources of pollutants differ. Each case appears to be different; each needs to be considered on its own.

    But all these different failures of drinking water systems have a common element: money. If fracking is done properly with all the requisite safety measures in place, drinking water should not be affected. But again and again the drillers, in order to save money, skip a step and therefore chemicals and flammable gas escapes into water supplies, wells and even into basements. Sooner or later drinking water is polluted and wells and even houses explode. Associations of large farmers put serious pressure on the government not to enforce regulations that would make farming more costly. Authorities supposed to oversee the maintenance of drinking water wink at violations. Congressional representatives in order to please local industries submit legislation in Congress that exempts local polluters from government surveillance. The money of the industries speaks louder than the citizens’ votes.

    Conflict over the preservation of clean drinking water pits government agencies and environmental preservation groups against the lobbies of agriculture and industry. Run-off from large farms is blamed for a good deal of drinking water pollution, as are the effects of industry and drilling for oil. In the struggle over clean drinking water for all Americans the well being of all citizens is threatened by private financial interests. 

    Many Americans believe that our economic system, largely run by for-profit businesses serving the private interest of those businesses, is the best there is. But when we consider the widespread pollution of drinking water with chemicals as well as harmful organisms, we can see that the private pursuit of profit may be good for farmers and owners of industries but is harmful for ordinary citizens. The pursuit of private profit is often harmful for the majority of Americans.

    Reporting on individual instances of drinking water pollution as isolated events deliberately conceals the fact that each case of pollution is due to the pursuit of private profit. In order to enrich a small number of owners, the rest of us drink water laced with lead and other harmful chemicals that threaten to shorten our lifespan. If we consider the pollution of the air we breathe, and the degradation of the food we eat, also for the sake of private profit, we can see that this economy--often touted as so beneficial to everyone--demands a very high price from us – years of our lives.