In the weeks since we partnered with Michigan Radio to bring you “Not Safe to Drink,” a documentary on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the city’s plight has lingered in national headlines.
Yet despite its severity and scale, Flint’s predicament is just one in a long line of water crises affecting communities across America. And once the headlines fade, so too can public concern.
In an effort to shed light on other recent incidents of local water contamination, we asked readers for their suggestions using the hashtag #WaterReads. We selected a few of the submissions and reached out to the reporters who are still following the story to find out what happened and where the problems stand. Here’s what they told us, in their own words.
Texas border towns struggle with access to clean drinking water
– Kathleen Stanford (@Katcorvette) Jan. 27, 2016
Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune/Reveal reporter: Since the Texas border towns of Rio Bravo and El Cenizo were founded in the 1980s, the residents – now numbering in the thousands – haven’t had reliable access to clean drinking water. Rio Bravo and El Cenizo pull their water from the Rio Grande, one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. And for decades, various water treatment plants built to serve them never worked properly, including a $12 million plant built in 2006 that was supposed to be state of the art. Over the years, state regulators cited the plant for failing to remove dangerous bacteria and chemicals from the water, but even as residents complained about dirty, smelly water, no one told them about those violations. In 2013, after more than a dozen people complained about their tap water in one day, the state found it was contaminated with unsafe levels of E. coli that could cause diarrhea, vomiting and kidney problems. State and local prosecutors later indicted several workers at the water plant on allegations of lying about the water quality for years. Last year, one of those workers pleaded guilty to the charges.
What’s being done now?
Local officials say they’ve got the problems at the water treatment plant under control. The workers accused of lying about the water quality have left, and money is trickling in to fix things, they say. But residents aren’t convinced, and state regulators still are citing the water plant for violations. Most residents I spoke to say they do not trust the tap water and continue to pay for bottled water, even as their regular water bills will go up to pay for repairs to the treatment plant.
Two years later, North Carolina residents still affected by coal ash spill
Dave DeWitt, WUNC environment reporter: Coal ash is the waste product of burning coal in power plants. It contains known carcinogens, many of which are also naturally occurring in soil. For decades, coal ash has been stored in unlined pits adjacent to power plants, often near rivers. After a 2014 spill in North Carolina, the state passed a comprehensive, first-in-the-country law to address the problem, including potential well water contamination. There’s no unanimity on whether well water has been contaminated by coal ash from Duke Energy’s 14 sites in North Carolina. Four hundred residents near those sites have been notified by one state agency that their water is unsafe to drink. But a separate state agency contends that the water is not more contaminated than tap water from other municipalities across the state, and Duke Energy says its facilities are not to blame. Residents are understandably upset, fearful and confused.
What’s being done now?
Duke Energy is moving coal ash from four of the 14 sites to lined landfills away from rivers. The state is attempting to implement the most aggressive coal ash regulations in the country. The issue is likely to cost Duke Energy customers billions of dollars and take decades.
Chemical spill in West Virginia sparks community action and reform attempts
Ken Ward Jr., Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter: On the morning of Jan. 9, 2014, the chemical MCHM and other chemicals leaked from a storage tank at Freedom Industries, a chemical storage and distribution operation on the banks of the Elk River, 1.5 miles upstream from West Virginia American Water’s regional drinking water intake, which serves hundreds of thousands of people in the Charleston area and surrounding communities. A “do not use” order from the state lasted for up to a week, but it was not issued until late on the day of the spill. Hundreds of people sought medical attention, many of them after following guidance for how to “flush” their home plumbing systems – guidance that didn’t take into account the potential health effects of inhalation or skin exposure to MCHM. The local health department estimated that 100,000 people suffered similar symptoms: nausea, rash, vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea, as well as headaches, itching, sore throat, eye pain and coughing.
What’s being done now?
In the months after the spill, state lawmakers passed legislation aimed at more strictly regulating aboveground chemical storage tanks, ensuring that public drinking water systems more carefully consider potential spills and working to avoid such incidents in the future. The following year, after intense industry lobbying, that bill was seriously weakened.
Dave Mistich, West Virginia Public Broadcasting digital editor: Residents of Charleston and the surrounding area came together in a variety of ways following the January 2014 chemical spill. For one, there were drives that collected water and distribution centers set up across the affected areas. I also know that many first responders and emergency personnel delivered bottled water to some elderly and handicapped members of the community. Also, a group of software developers created interactive maps to illustrate where distribution centers and showers were available in the area. Some members of the community went as far as to establish Advocates for a Safe Water System, which lobbies for stricter regulation on issues surrounding drinking water. More recently, the group has been working to make the privately owned water company whose intake was contaminated in the event a publicly owned system.