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“Superman Is Not Coming”: Erin Brockovich on the Future of Water

“It’s hundreds of Flints,” says Erin Brockovich: US water supplies have become repositories for industrial waste.

Erin Brockovich speaks at the 2016 Arizona Ultimate Women's Expo at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona, October 9, 2016. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

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Come take a ride on America’s toxic water slide: First stop: Flint, Michigan, where two years later, people are still contending with lead-laced water, which was finally detected by the EPA in February 2015 with the help of resident Lee Anne Walters. Next stop: California, where hundreds of wells have been contaminated with 1,2,3-TCP, a Big Oil-manufactured chemical present in pesticides. Travel to the East to see the significant amounts of 1,4-dioxane, an industry solvent stabilizer that continue to pollute the waters belonging to North Carolina’s Cape Fear River Basin. In New York and Pennsylvania, residents are contending with outbreaks of waterborne Legionnaires’ disease (the bacteria grow easily in water distribution systems and often hide in the biofilm of aging pipes). Meanwhile, in June 2016, kids in Hoosick Falls, New York, protested in the streets with placards around their necks that featured PFOA (Perfluorooctanoic acid, a man-made chemical used in Teflon) levels to denote how much has infiltrated their blood through tainted water. Drop to Houston, Texas, where high levels of hexavalent chromium, the cancer-causing chemical made infamous by Erin Brockovich, are turning up in tap water while thousands of fracking poisons overrun imperiled communities and Indigenous reservations. And, to add to the cesspit, just four days after Trump was sworn in, he sanctioned the $3.8 billion, 1,170-mile Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that will create underground contamination.

Yes, indeed, the story of water in America is dirty and deep. The tale took a toxic turn in the 1930s, during the dawn of the chemical industry, when many horrifying toxins were first being introduced into our landscape. Quality reports on what flows out of American faucets today read like a description for liquid cancer.

And the water we do have isn’t enough. Since 2008, nearly every region of the US has experienced a water shortage.

And since 2015, at least 40 states have been anticipating local, regional or statewide water shortages within the next 10 years, even under non-drought conditions.

“Houston. We. Have. A. Problem,” says environmental activist Erin Brockovich in reference to the nation’s water supply. Brockovich should know. She’s been at it for more than 25 years, ever since her investigation uncovered that Pacific Gas & Electric was poisoning the small town of Hinkley, California, by adding the cooling water biocide Chromium 6 Cr(VI) into the water supply for more than 30 years. The adverse health effects associated with Cr(VI) exposure include occupational asthma, eye irritation and damage, perforated eardrums, respiratory irritation, kidney damage, liver damage, pulmonary congestion and edema, upper abdominal pain, nose irritation and respiratory cancer.

“It’s not just one Flint. It’s hundreds of Flints,” Brockovich, who became a household name in 2000 when Julia Roberts portrayed her in an Oscar-winning film, tells me in an interview. “We’ve already slipped and we’re on the cusp of Third World conditions when it comes to our water supply.”

According to an Environmental Working Group’s analysis of federal data from nationwide drinking water tests, Chromium 6 alone, which remains unregulated to this day, contaminates the water supplies of more than 200 million Americans in all 50 states. That’s roughly two-thirds of the population.

The Larger Toxic Soup

Brockovich learns about water toxins via the thousands of emails she receives from around the country. Just consider her the Dear Abby of Dirty Water. For instance, in January 2015 Melissa Mays, a mother of three alerted Brockovich about Flint, long before mainstream media learned the news. A month later, Brockovich’s partner in crime, environmental investigator Bob Bowcock visited the community. He then wrote a report to the mayor outlining exactly what they needed to do to fix the problem.

These days, the correspondence never ceases. At the time of our interview, Brockovich was heading to Hannibal, Missouri, where people are grappling with high levels of lead and the dangerous byproduct chloramine. She has also begun an investigation in Waycross, Georgia, to understand why there’s a high incidence of cancer among the town’s children, and she’ll eventually visit Tyler, Texas, to probe its connection with the cancer-causing disinfectant haloacetic acids (HAA5).

It’s come to the point where Brockovich sees the country by chemical, not by state. Give her a poison, and she’ll tell you which state you can find it in. She can easily cite 40 states coping with water contamination from lead and hexavalent chromium, among other substances.

Distilling Toxins for Truth

Despite the facts, politicians have failed to recognize that clean water should be a national security priority. How close do the dots have to be before they can be connected?

“I think everyone is waking up,” says Brockovich. “Whatever agency on the Hill they think is keeping tabs … that’s not really what’s happening.”

In other words, regardless of the administration, the EPA has protected industry-backed efforts at the expense of our health.

“There are well-meaning, intelligent scientists and engineers … but it’s such a cluster mess. They don’t know where to go. They are held back,” Brockovich says. “This is an agency that is overburdened, broke.”

It doesn’t help that the country doesn’t abide by the “precautionary principle,” which would require us to prohibit products or processes with questionable effects from entering into existence without further investigation for sake of protecting the people and planet. According to a March 2005 publication from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the precautionary principle can be summed up in this way: “When human activities may lead to morally unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.”

Long before Trump, the Overton window — the range of ideas that the public finds acceptable to consider within the sphere of public discourse — shifted and we decided toxic chemicals were actually safe unless proven harmful. This normalization of pathology is ever-present in our current world.

With a climate denier as president and an EPA leadership that seems intent on dismantling the EPA, the Trump administration has arguably just made it more obvious and official that the almighty dollar rules. The administration is already rolling back Obama-era regulations on coal-burning power plants and climate change. The “Green Blob,” aka the EPA, is now being run by Scott Pruitt, best known for suing the agency 14 times while he was attorney general of Oklahoma. Pruitt’s suits against the agency even included motions to block regulations on clean water. While he was attorney general, Pruitt’s official biography described him as a “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”

Despite findings by the Government Accountability Office that as many as 15 percent of localities lack the resources to address environmental challenges, the current administration’s budget proposal hopes to cut the EPA’s funding by 31 percent by focusing on killing climate change programs, arguably dismantling the agency’s ability to protect the health of people in the US.

“The fundamental issue is lack of funds, particularly in areas where population is declining as America’s demographics change,” writes Deborah Seligsohn, who researches environmental governance at the University of California at San Diego.

On Tap: The United Corporation of America

The extent to which companies control government has never been more blatantly obvious. For decades, toxic-waste sites and irresponsible industries have managed to discharge hundreds of toxic chemicals, pharmaceuticals, disinfection byproducts, plastics and heavy metals into the water supply either without repercussion or with penalties that are too slight to change business practices.

Put simply, water today has become a repository for industrial waste, explains water quality specialist Dr. Roy M. Speiser of Clean Water Revival.

“People are being misled to believe that drinking water is safe because it meets government standards,” Speiser told Truthout. “The notion that the EPA’s allowable concentration levels of toxic contaminants in your drinking water is ‘safe’ is a myth. If a certain chemical or heavy metal, such as arsenic, is present in trace amounts, and you drink this water over an extended period, it accumulates in your body, which contributes to a chronic health disorder.”

Unfortunately, it’s insidiously difficult to track cumulative effects on health unless there is acute exposure, and Western medicine often fails to acknowledge the idea that toxic chemicals accumulate in our blood, fatty tissues and other parts of our bodies, and that this overload of toxins in our bodies can affect our risk for certain diseases. The corporations that create the pesticides, cosmetics, plastics and other products that expose us to these toxins know that they are unlikely to be prosecuted for their effects, since symptoms can take 10 or 20 years to pronounce themselves.

“The amount of chemicals in our air, water, waterways and soil is one of the most frustrating things about how EPA regulates chemicals in the environment,” says Bowcock, whom Brockovich fondly calls “Bill, the Science Guy.” “They don’t take into account all the various pathways you are exposed to — drinking, cooking, swimming, showering, brushing teeth — from just one medium: water.”

According to a study in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “non-genetic, environmental exposures are involved in causation, in some cases probably by interacting with genetically inherited predispositions. Strong evidence exists that industrial chemicals widely disseminated in the environment are important contributors to what we have called the global, silent pandemic of neurodevelopmental toxicity.”

Regulations Speculations

The Safe Drinking Water Act, which was originally enacted into law in 1974, was supposed to focus on ensuring that public drinking water meets appropriate safety standards; in contrast, the 1972 Clean Water Act theoretically regulates pollution in our nation’s lakes, rivers and other bodies of water.

But when it comes to water health, the EPA has operated at a glacial pace.

The Environmental Working Group’s tests and a petition from environmental groups pushed the EPA to add chromium-6 to the chemicals local utilities must test, under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to review each national primary drinking water regulation at least once every six years and revise them, if appropriate. The 1996 amendments, meanwhile, require the EPA to select up to 30 previously unregulated contaminants for testing every five years, according to the Environmental Working Group.

Yet, in two decades, the EPA has ordered testing for only 81 contaminants out of thousands, and moved forward on setting a regulation for a mere one: the rocket fuel ingredient perchlorate. The implementation of that regulation is two years behind schedule.

“For an agency to be unable to adopt a single standard (for water contaminants) in 20 years is inexcusable,” Erik Olson, health and environment program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) told the Washington Post. “It’s a combination of a bad law and very bad implementation.”

According to Brockovich, a lack of regulations isn’t the issue.

“Any regulation without enforcement and oversight is moot…. We have a Clean Water Act implemented by none other than the Nixon administration that everyone wants to dodge and not follow, and that’s why we’re in the trouble we’re in. We have some really good laws on the books. Let’s just enforce them and we can begin to make headway,” says Brockovich.

Drops of Hope

Despite Pruitt’s track record, the Flint crisis was so egregious and well-publicized (thanks largely to the work of local activists) that the EPA is taking steps to improve that situation. The agency awarded a $100-million grant to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, approved by Congress and former President Barack Obama late last year, to fund drinking water infrastructure upgrades in Flint. Pruitt has also expressed interest in allotting $20 million to the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program (WIFIA).

“EPA will especially focus on helping Michigan improve Flint’s water infrastructure as part of our larger goal of improving America’s water infrastructure,” Pruitt said in a press release issued by the EPA on March 17, 2017.

According to the agency, The WIFIA funding supplements EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which has reportedly provided more than $32.5 billion to states for infrastructure upgrades through the years.

And yet, according to the New York Times, Pruitt also began the complicated legal process of rewriting the sweeping 2015 rule known as the Waters of the United States, which allows the federal government authority to limit pollution in major bodies of water. It falls under the Clean Water Act.

Because the water protection rule was finalized under existing laws, the legality to alter the rule after this fact is under question. It cannot simply be rewritten, legal experts in both the Obama and Trump White House have stated.

Frack This: The Halliburton Loophole

Despite the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA does not regulate the injection of fracking fluids. Today, oil and gas companies can — and do — dump whatever they want into the nation’s water supplies, carte blanche, due to the “Halliburton Loophole.”

In 2005, a national energy bill included the exemption of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) from the Safe Drinking Water Act. At the time, Dick Cheney was vice president and also the former CEO of Halliburton, the company that patented hydraulic fracturing in the ’40s.

“Of course, politics were involved and at play in exempting the oil and gas industry from the Drinking Water Act and Safe Water Act,” says Kandi Mossett of North Dakota, a leading voice in the fight to bring visibility to the impacts that climate change and environmental injustice are having on Indigenous communities across North America.

Even though common sense suggests fracking is linked to the environmental assault we’re witnessing, companies are protected because of regulations that prevent them from having to detail and report their chemical dumps, because in a court of law you cannot directly connect corporations with any chemical, Mossett told Truthout.

“[Companies] didn’t need to tally the chemicals and toxins they were using in their processes and that’s when everything really began raging around the country when it came to fracking,” says the 37-year-old, who also serves as the Indigenous Environmental Network lead organizer on the Extreme Energy and Just Transition campaign.

“Every frack job they do on a single rig uses a minimum of 6 million tons of water. And it has to be pristine water because it has less contaminants that will interact with their water, which involves up to 2,000 chemicals,” explains Mossett.

A 2011 EPA report estimated that 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are used to fracture 35,000 wells in the United States each year. This is equivalent to approximately the annual water consumption of 40 to 80 cities, each with a population of 50,000, according to Earthworks.

This extraction of so much water for fracking has raised many concerns about the ecological destruction of aquatic resources, as well as the dewatering of drinking water aquifers.

“It has also been estimated that the transportation of a million gallons of water (fresh or waste water) requires hundreds of truck trips, increasing the greenhouse gas footprint of oil and gas and contributing to air pollution,” reports Source Watch.

In 2015, Mossett’s community, the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, experienced a 1 million gallon spill.

Although the EPA was responsible for cleaning up the mess, that never really happened.

“It was more like they poured water on it, and let it go down the hill and down the creek and into the Missouri River,” says Mossett. “So again, you have the US Army Corps of Engineers messing with waterways and causing contaminants.”

Meanwhile, mainstream media outlets have described these various spills associated with the multibillion-dollar fracking industry as “brine,” a simple euphemism that turns a toxic event into something that sounds commonplace and benign.

Standing Rock: “And the Pipes Build On”

A Lakota prophecy describes a “black snake” that warns of the destruction of Mother Earth. Some Lakota and others believe the Dakota Access Pipeline, which encroaches on treaty rights and is headed straight for ancestral lands and waters, fits the bill.

On February 23 the US Army Corps of Engineers allowed an easement, allowing pipeline construction to move forward despite environmental risks and protests. While a total of 700 Water Protectors were arrested, and legal aid for court cases is still needed, the movement served to mobilize people into solidarity, from Sweden to Venezuela.

“We’re not going to just let it go,” says Mossett, who was at Standing Rock for the entire duration of the protests, from April 2016 to February 2017. “Pipelines are toxic and an illegal violation of human rights and Indigenous sovereignty.”

To add salt to the wound, the Trump administration also issued a permit allowing construction companies to move forward with the Keystone XL Pipeline, although the route is still being litigated in the states, and Indigenous tribes and landowners have joined environmental groups in opposing the pipeline, whose carbon-heavy tar sands contribute to global warming.

Around the end of March, environmental groups filed two federal lawsuits to block construction despite Trump’s recent approval, citing that “outdated and incomplete environmental impact statement[s]” were used, according to Reuters.

A court hearing wasn’t expected until at least April, after operations are expected to begin.

Water Wars: Superman Isn’t Coming

We the people can no longer convince ourselves that federal agencies will protect us from threats to our health and our environment.

In light of a broken system that allows industrial chemicals to be used with abandon, without any significant testing for safety, and with the imminent slashing of the federal agency’s budget, we are headed toward more illnesses and deaths.

“Superman is not coming,” says Brockovich. “We have to stop thinking it’s going to trickle down from the top. It’s going to have to begin with you in your backyard, at your city council. The change is going to come from the people, just like it has in Flint and Hannibal.”

For instance, the first thing people can do is call their municipality and ask for a water quality report to figure out what filters may or may not work to purify drinking water and protect against toxicity.

In 2016, President Barack Obama signed off on Trevor’s Law. Part of a larger toxic substances reform bill, its goal is to protect children and communities from areas where disease clusters have been identified. Part of the vision included a federally run national registry but rather than wait for the government, Brockovich and her team created the Community Health Book. Banking on online user activity, this invaluable interactive map allows for self-reporting, helping us locate and identify disease cluster outbreaks and monitor migratory pathways for the first time.

Since going live a few months ago, the site has generated about 150 new reports a week.

“It’s a scary scenario, but we always stay hopeful and positive,” says Brockovich. “When the people get more informed, they get stronger, and then changes can start to happen. The very first step is getting people to wake up.”

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