Watered Down Justice

For Immediate Release: September 24, 2019

Contact:

Pam Nixon, (304) 546-7764

Eric Whalen, (971) 998-8786

New Report: West Virginia Counties Rank Among Worst in Nation on Drinking Water Health Violations

Most West Virginians Served by Municipal Systems Drank Potentially Unsafe Water During the 3-Year Study

Charleston, WV — Most West Virginia counties rank among the worst in the nation for violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to a new report released today. Watered Down Justice (full report and WV factsheet) is a new analysis of EPA data that confirms there is unequal access to safe drinking water, based most strongly on race, a scientific conclusion that mirrors the lived experience of people of color and low-income residents in the United States. The report reveals that 65% of West Virginia counties experienced enough health-based violations to place them in the worst third of counties nationally for serving potentially unsafe drinking water. The report also measured the amount of time counties were out-of-compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act and found 76% of counties in West Virginia among the worst third of counties nationally.

The report, released in West Virginia by People Concerned About Chemical Safety, adds additional concern about the state’s drinking water systems as many believe the state is experiencing a drinking water crisis brought on by decades of industrial pollution, disinvestment, and the possibility of large-scale chemical spills. The West Virginia State Legislature recently passed up an opportunity to consider strengthened protections for water quality standards, pledging instead to consider a bill on the issue during the 2021 legislative session. The state Department of Environmental Protection plans to collect comments from interested parties in 2020.

“This report reveals that West Virginians are served some of the worst drinking water in the nation. Legacy contamination from industry, inadequate funding and support, and the potential for hazardous substance spills all pose a significant threat to the safety and security of our drinking water, particularly for those who live in communities of color or low-income. It’s time state authorities hold polluting industries accountable and take action to protect our water,” said Pam Nixon, President of People Concerned About Chemical Safety.

“Those of us who suffered through the MCHM spill in January of 2014 know all to well what it’s like not to be able to trust the water coming out of the tap. Unfortunately many West Virginian’s live with that reality every single day. Let’s stop perpetuating the false narrative that pits business interests versus environmental concerns. The fact of the matter is, nobody wants to live, raise children, or relocate a business to an area that doesn’t have such a crucial resource as clean, potable water,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin (D-Kanawha).

“Quality of life and quality of water go hand in hand. Recent studies have shown that life expectancy in many parts of West Virginia are far below the national average, and our poor health is at least partially the result of both poverty and environmental pollution. The fact that our legislature is dragging their feet on meaningful action to protect our drinking water is a rallying cry for action to everyone concerned about our health,” said Ricardo Martin, President of the Charleston, WV Branch of the NAACP.

Race, together with ethnicity and language spoken had the strongest relationship to serious longstanding violations and ineffective enforcement of the nation’s drinking water law, the Safe Drinking Water Act. Aging, underdeveloped, and underfunded water infrastructure contributes to unsafe water conditions, as does dysfunction of the law, in part because some dangerous contaminants are not regulated.

“All West Virginians deserve access to clean drinking water. It’s a quality of life issue, but it’s also an economic development issue. Safe drinking water is the most basic type of infrastructure, and businesses are less likely to grow in areas with chronic boil-water advisories or drinking water violations. Legislators need to re-commit to funding drinking water infrastructure investments,” said Delegate Evan Hansen (D-Monongalia).

“Three-hundred thousand West Virginians can tell you what it’s like to live through a water crisis. But the truth of the matter is, the crisis isn’t over. Too many of our residents remain vulnerable and exposed to harmful chemicals. It’s time for leaders to take a thorough inventory of all that compromises the safety of the water we drink and commit to changes necessary to protect people’s health—no matter where they live,” said Angie Rosser, Executive Director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

Drinking water safety is likely even worse than described in this report. The EPA regulates only a small subset of drinking water contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the agency has failed to adopt a single new standard for an unregulated contaminant since 1996. Many serious drinking water contamination threats (including polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances or PFASs, which have impacted drinking water sources in Parkersburg, WV, for example) are not violations of the law. Private wells and noncommunity water systems are also not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Pathogens, naturally occurring elements, agricultural chemicals, and nearby industrial activities such as mining frequently contaminate these drinking water sources.

Nearly 130 million people in the United States get their drinking water from systems that violated federal law during the three-year period covered by Watered Down Justice. Drinking contaminated water is linked to high costs to human health, including cancer, compromised fertility, developmental effects, serious infections, and more.

Key report findings for West Virginia:

  • Most municipal drinking water systems in West Virginia were in violation of the law at some point during the 3-year period of this study.
  • Of 55 Counties in West Virginia, 36 (65%) ranked among the worst-third of US counties for the most health-based violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and only seven are among the third of US counties which had the fewest health violations.
  • 42 of West Virginia’s 55 Counties (76%) were among the worst-third of US counties for longest time out-of-compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, and only four are in the third of US Counties with the shortest time out-of-compliance.

Recommendations to secure safe and affordable drinking water for every community in the United States include:

  • Improving the national law to measurably increase access to safe drinking water for communities of color, starting by identifying, engaging and funding water infrastructure projects;
  • Preventing water contamination, by effectively controlling industrial and agribusiness discharges and spills and by expanding the list of chemicals and substances regulated under the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water law;
  • Enforcing the law to ensure safe drinking water for all.

Key national findings:

  • NRDC, EJHA, and Coming Clean analyzed the approximately 50,000 active community water systems in the country and sociodemographic factors such as race and income.
  • The data from June 1, 2016, to May 31, 2019, included nearly 200,000 violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the federal law.
  • Drinking water systems that consistently violated the law for years were 40 percent more likely to occur in places with higher percentages of residents who were people of color.
  • 130 million people in the US get their drinking water from systems that violated federal law during the period reviewed in this report.

Resources:

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People Concerned About Chemical Safety is an environmental justice organization dedicated to the protection of health and safety of all who reside, work, and study in the vicinity of local chemical plants producing highly toxic chemicals. Learn more at ChemSafety.org and follow us on Twitter @PeopleConcerned.

The Environmental Justice Health Alliance (EJHA) organizes industry reform strategies for safer chemicals and clean energy that leave no community or worker behind. Learn more about EJHA here: http://ej4all.org/

Coming Clean is a nonprofit collaborative network of environmental justice leaders, toxic chemical researchers, and public policy advocates working toward just, healthy, and sustainable chemical and climate solutions.  Learn more at ComingCleanInc.org.  Follow us on Twitter @StopToxics

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