This morning I was sipping a bottled water and perusing my blackberry in a hospital waiting room while my son awaited treatment for a broken elbow. I came upon an email forwarded by a colleague, which provided a link to a jaw-dropping story in today's New York Times about rampant water pollution violations nationwide and lax environmental enforcement. The article opens this way:
Jennifer Hall-Massey knows not to drink the tap water in her home near Charleston, W.Va.
In fact, her entire family tries to avoid any contact with the water. Her youngest son has scabs on his arms, legs and chest where the bathwater - polluted with lead, nickel and other heavy metals - caused painful rashes. Many of his brother's teeth were capped to replace enamel that was eaten away.
Neighbors apply special lotions after showering because their skin burns. Tests show that their tap water contains arsenic, barium, lead, manganese and other chemicals at concentrations federal regulators say could contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.
"How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not clean water?" said Mrs. Hall-Massey, a senior accountant at one of the state's largest banks.
She and her husband, Charles, do not live in some remote corner of Appalachia. Charleston, the state capital, is less than 17 miles from her home.
"How is this still happening today?" she asked.
When Mrs. Hall-Massey and 264 neighbors sued nine nearby coal companies, accusing them of putting dangerous waste into local water supplies, their lawyer did not have to look far for evidence. As required by state law, some of the companies had disclosed in reports to regulators that they were pumping into the ground illegal concentrations of chemicals - the same pollutants that flowed from residents' taps.
But state regulators never fined or punished those companies for breaking those pollution laws.
The extensive article -- enhanced with gripping photos and video -- is truly infuriating. For the most part, here in America we are blessed with abundant water supplies, but it's the quality -- not the quantity -- that poses a threat to our health. How can it be that polluters can get away with poisoning us?
Although this incredible piece of investigative journalism focuses on the threat of 'toxic waters' throughout the country, the story's initial example of West Virginia brings to mind the severe water quality problems caused by coal mining. Clearly, coalfield communities are suffering more than most.
In my work to end mountaintop removal coal mining, I've had the good fortune to visit the homes of many residents in Appalachia. These folks have shared their stories of drinking water wells contaminated by toxic mining waste, which they blame for causing severe health problems. I've seen (and smelled) the discolored water that flows from their taps and I'm ashamed to admit that when offered something to drink I've too eagerly declined the hospitality. Of course, bottled water is the only thing they can serve.
The town of Prenter, West Virginia is the unfortunate poster child of this problem. As I blogged previously about this town:
We, as Americans, tend to take water for granted. When we turn on the tap we simply expect that it is clean enough for washing, bathing and drinking. Even though some may prefer to drink filtered or bottled water, my guess is that most people generally don't think twice about the quantity, quality and especially the safety of their local water supply.
Unfortunately, that's not the case if you happen to live in West Virginia's coal country, ground zero for the most extreme form of strip mining -- mountaintop removal. In my travels to Appalachia I've met many folks whose health has been adversely affected by reckless mining that is ravaging their communities, but to me the most shocking threat they face is poisoned water.
Now come reports from a town...that local residents have well water which is not fit for human consumption because it is "too toxic to touch." This community of about 300 homes is now trying raise money so they can get barrels of clean water delivered.
The people of Prenter shouldn't have to fear the water that flows from their faucets, nor should anyone else in Appalachia. The mining companies shouldn't get away with burying and polluting Appalachia's pristine mountain streams with toxic mining waste. The same goes for everyone in America, and every industry that violates the laws that are meant to protect public health and the environment.
I applaud the New York Times for its coverage of this crisis and I truly hope that those charged with upholding our laws take all necessary steps to protect the American people, not the polluters.
***This post originally appeared on the NRDC Switchboard.
Rob Perks runs NRDC's Center for Advocacy Campaigns. Their shop exists to guide NRDC's policy and program experts in shaping and executing strategic campaigns on the institution's priority issues.