When we turn on a faucet we assume the water is safe to drink. It’s not a safe assumption in many countries, of course, but regarded here as an unwritten right and safeguarded by public officials (Ahem, what about Flint, Michigan?).
Congress passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 to prohibit the discharge of pollutants into the “waters of the United States.” Unfortunately, the drafters didn’t define “waters.” The Ohio and Mississippi rivers are obviously included, but how far up their tributaries does protection extend?
And now with an Administration bent on watering down regulations we are in a strange phase of history when gains in public health and the environment are being reversed. The EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are now more anemic agents. Our polity has deteriorated so far that challenges end up for courts to decide. It would be comforting to believe that states will compensate with wiser decisions as they are closer to people affected. But rivers are no respecters of boundaries, so an upstream offender sends pollution down to neighboring states.
Our region of the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia is the origin of several great rivers. Some 60% of headwater streams feeding into them run as trickles or dry out except after heavy rain or snow melt (like our waterfall illustrated). They are not protected waters, and their purity depends on sensitive stewardship by landowners.
Six years ago there was a chemical spill in the Elk River that left hundreds of thousands of people in nine counties without potable water for months. It was the third spill in the valley in 5 years, only a short distance from the state capitol that almost overlooks the Kanawha River into which the Elk discharged pollution from a leaking storage tank. House Bill 4079 now proposes to exempt standards for released contaminants more than a defined distance upstream of public water intakes. Aarhh!
Most pollutants are probably harmless, but how can we be sure? And even if human health is unaffected, fish and other aquatic life may suffer. We only test chemicals known or suspected to cause harm, and special interests can push back from expanding the list. This is happening now as the WV legislature debates PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). The CDC acknowledges these substances used for coating products by manufacturers, the military and firefighting stations accumulate in the environment because they are stable.
They are among synthetic chemicals called endocrine disruptors that mimic or antagonize natural hormones in the body, potentially causing chronic and malignant diseases, fertility problems and birth defects. Some of them are active at extremely low levels. This is a relatively new area of research, and a subject I currently teach to college students. A community study near Parkersburg, West Virginia, found a probable link between a type of PFAS and several diseases, but testing one chemical at a time is a losing battle. For well over a century, chemists have been synthesizing novel chemicals that now number over 80 thousand. We desperately need high-throughput methods for testing them.
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