Sunday, September 13, 2009

Testing the Waters

Here's why we need strong, independent newspapers, capable of sustained investigative reporting.  Sunday's NYT has a major (as in 3 full pages) article about the deteriorating state of our rivers and streams, after almost a decade of lax enforcement of the Clean Water Act. 

The Times obtained hundreds of thousands of water pollution records through Freedom of Information Act requests to every state and the E.P.A., and compiled a national database of water pollution violations that is more comprehensive than those maintained by states or the E.P.A. (For an interactive version, which can show violations in any community, visit

In addition, The Times interviewed more than 250 state and federal regulators, water-system managers, environmental advocates and scientists.

That research shows that an estimated one in 10 Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet a federal health benchmark in other ways.

Those exposures include carcinogens in the tap water of major American cities and unsafe chemicals in drinking-water wells. Wells, which are not typically regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, are more likely to contain contaminants than municipal water systems.

The scary hook--illustrated by a front-page picture of a kid whose teeth have been corroded by water full of heavy-metals from mine slurry--is West Virginia, where EPA regulators have been regularly intimidated and even fired, in the name of a more "cooperative" relationship between industry and government.  But the whole report, including the searchable database, is a great public service, allowing us to see local trends and larger patterns.  Alongside the data, it includes state-by-state responses from the EPA to the Times requests, variously reasonable and defensive in the spotlight.

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