Six former officials of Freedom Industries, the chemical company behind the massive chemical spill into the Charleston, WV water supply, have been charged with multiple criminal violations of the Clean Water Act. In January, 300,000 people’s water was dangerously contaminated with a toxic industrial chemical because of a leak from Freedom Industry’s containment system.
The former officials are being held accountable for their negligence, and one man faces up to 68 years in prison, thanks to a persistent news media and the strong actions of regional federal Justice Officials. In a press release, US Attorney General Eric Holder stated that “compliance with environmental safety standards is an obligation, not a choice.” Justice is being brought to this clear case of wrong doing, as it ought to be.
That the Clean Water Act is being enforced should be commonplace, but unfortunately it is breaking news. And in North Carolina, in light of Duke Energy’s Dan River Coal Ash Spill and ongoing water pollution from its coal ash dumps, we are still waiting for the justice system to have its day.
Falls Lake during the 2007-2008 drought.
By Jenn Weaver, Water & Energy Justice Organizer
Climate change is here, and many communities are now grappling with how to be more resilient to the challenges these environmental changes will bring. The concept of “Climate Justice”, like Environmental Justice, maintains that vulnerable communities – communities of color, poor communities, rural communities – are going to suffer the effects of climate change most quickly and deeply unless real effort goes into preventing or mitigating those unequal effects. What are the climate change impacts on water likely to be? Drought, sea level rise, storm water flooding, extreme heat or cold, salt contamination of drinking water, high prices for water, food and energy– all of these are possible, or even likely, outcomes of climate change that North Carolina is going to face or, in some cases, already is facing.
Princeville, NC was mostly underwater when Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999.
Clean Water for NC is taking a look at how North Carolina communities will be affected, and the steps that need to be taken to ensure water justice in the face of climate change in our state. To understand the job that faces local governments and the communities they are sworn to protect, we will harken back to hurricane Floyd in 1999 and to the drought of 2007 to reflect on how vulnerable communities were harmed, and lessons learned from those events. We will also explore the challenges local governments face in making the necessary adjustments to policies and operations. For example, all North Carolinians must have access to clean and affordable drinking water, so local governments will need to charge enough for water service to keep up with infrastructure requirements – not just for expansions, but for replacing and repairing broken or leaky pipes that waste this increasingly precious resource. What kind of pricing system will encourage conservation, keep up with infrastructure needs, and remain affordable for those low income residents? When large numbers of wells are contaminated by storm flooding, will state and local governments be prepared to provide safe replacement water supply?
We will examine these questions and more – be on the lookout for our report on climate impacts on water justice in North Carolina in the coming weeks!
In 2012, the USGS, Duke and NC DENR collaborated on a study of baseline groundwater quality in the areas of Lee and Chatham County where fracking would be most likely to occur. The tests included a wide range of metals and other inorganic substances, as well as specific forms (isotopes) of radium and strontium. The highest levels of methane found were more than 20 times lower than the potentially hazardous level of 10 milligrams per liter, too low a concentration to determine whether it was from a shallow “biogenic” source or had moved upwards from a shale formation.
Results for nitrate, boron, iron, manganese, sulfate, chloride, total dissolved solids, and pH exceeded federal and state drinking water standards in a few samples. Iron and manganese concentrations, considered an “aesthetic” problem rather than a direct health threat by regulators, exceeded the secondary drinking water standard in about 35 percent of the samples. This was a one-time study to help in preparation for well protection and monitoring if fracking should come to these counties. The full study is available here.
CWFNC Urges Residents to Test Their Wells!
Only a tiny fraction of North Carolina’s well users have tested their wells for anything other than “fecal coliform” bacteria, though there may be natural contaminants such as arsenic present in many areas of our state, or other toxic products from human activity.. Arsenic is one of the many inorganic contaminants that are included in the standard tests that are now done on a newly installed well as part of licensing it with your county’s well program, usually in your County Health Department. These tests and other specialized tests for gasoline compounds (BTEX), volatile organic compounds, pesticides and more are available through your County well program, too. We strongly urge well users to test for any contaminants they suspect might have leached into the groundwater near their wells—and do it soon! The list of County well programs and tests from our July report is linked here. Note that many counties will have to raise their fees for well tests after the State Lab’s budget was slashed this year!
Today, we released a new report, “The Stealthy Takeover of NC Drinking Water: A Snapshot of Corporate Privatization,” presenting a geographical snapshot of small, privately-owned drinking water systems which are common sources of household drinking water, typically drawing groundwater from one or more wells.
Many North Carolinians don’t realize that their neighbors pay for water service from a private, for-profit company such as Aqua North Carolina or Utilities, Inc. These companies are quietly buying up aging drinking water systems, or making deals with developers to own and operate new systems. Both companies serve thousands of customers in rural areas, and in suburban areas outside cities like Raleigh, Charlotte, and Winston-Salem.
The 10-page report includes detailed maps of the drinking water systems owned by Aqua North Carolina and Utilities Inc., the two largest private water corporations operating in NC. Additional maps display the number of people served by each water system, data on water quality and reporting violations, and the demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Did you know that:
- Many corporate-owned systems haven’t consistently complied with water quality standards, despite charging high customer rates. Even for systems without recent violations, there are often water quality problems: small systems are not required to monitor as frequently as larger ones, so violations can slip through the cracks.
- Iron and manganese, common naturally-occurring groundwater contaminants, are not considered direct public health threats and do not have federally enforceable drinking water standards.
- Among the NC neighborhoods served by for-profit water utilities, low-income, minority, and rural communities are particularly vulnerable to steep rate hikes and poor service.
As an environmental justice organization, Clean Water for NC is particularly concerned that in some counties, such as Cumberland County, minority residents and households that are below the poverty level are experiencing the worst water quality violations; they are also much more vulnerable to high private water rates and future rate increases. NC residents should not be paying more than they can afford for water they can’t even drink.
Though these maps of the stealthy spread of corporate privatization may be alarming, there is still time for NC lawmakers, the NC Utilities Commission, and local public officials to capture the consumer and regulatory benefits of promoting consolidation of hundreds of independent systems under public ownership, as Alabama has done, and to facilitate publicly owned utilities’ purchase of small systems within or near their existing service areas.
A full set of maps by county for each utility company is available on request; please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to read the report.
Red dots represent water systems owned by Aqua NC; blue dots are water systems owned by Utilities Inc.