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Water contamination spurs preemptive initiatives


Last January, a chemical spill into the Elk River in West Virginia left residents without drinking water. The situation was so severe, it prompted President Obama to declare a state of emergency. And since February 2, North Carolinians have been battling threats to water quality from the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history. The government has taken on a responsive role (see my previous blog) and is also looking to expand its pre-emptive roles through research and legislation.

In January, the EPA awarded four Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants totaling $9 million for research aimed at managing and improving water quality. The researchers will investigate aspects of nutrient contamination, such as phosphorus or nitrogen, that can be deposited into water from power plants in both coastal and urbanized communities. They also will work towards improving methods of identifying nutrient-leakage sources and will investigate how to recover those nutrients from the water sources for other uses.

While this research is important, anxieties about the likelihood of spills recurring in the future—from known and unknown contamination hazards—beg for quicker measures. Congress is being pushed hard to enact protective legislation, which is long overdue given that the current Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed back in 1976.

Fortunately, two acts are before Congress that may fit the bill. The Safe Chemicals Act, proposed last year, will put the burden on manufacturers, not on the EPA, to prove that a chemical is safe—something that the TSCA does not do. In January, three senators introduced the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act (CSDWPA), in the wake of the recent water contamination in W. Va. The bill will establish rigorous construction standards and increase oversight of plant facilities to prevent future chemical leaks or spills.

A federal standard to prevent future accidents should step in where states' regulatory standards have failed, such as North Carolina, which has seen recurrent problems with coal ash pollution, but energy companies have done little to change their practices. The CSDWPA will also establish a way for states to recoup the costs of responding to such an emergency. This is particularly vital when companies may be reluctant to admit fault, where the cleanup may or may not be recouped. For example, a W. Va. natural gas energy company has been ordered to pay over $9 million to the EPA for damages to wetlands from its activities over four years ago.

It is striking that cleanup and environmental-restoration costs for just one company equate to four research grants. Let's hope that soon, emergency response funds can be replaced by preemptive funds and more effective legislation can improve water maintenance and safety.


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