By Dan Heyman
It’s been more than six months since Charleston tap water was declared drinkable. But is our water system any safer now?
The Freedom chemical spill spun off investigations and reform efforts; most remain incomplete. A gridlocked Congress has failed to update the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Lawsuits and an investigation by the Public Service Commission are now focusing on what documents West Virginia American Water has to reveal and some key parts of a new state storage-tank law are still being implemented.
Cathy Kunkel, a member of the Advocates for a Safe Water System steering committee, says the crisis uncovered a lot.
“Regulatory failures at a range of levels, from the federal level, TSCA, to the state level, the Department of Environmental Protection and lack of oversight over West Virginia American Water,” she says.
The public, according to Kunkel, shouldn’t let its attention drift away because many of the most important decisions are being made right now.
Kunkel says the storage-tank law will require utilities to file water-protection plans by mid-2016. Each plan should include a survey of potential contaminants and a study of alternative sources for untreated water.
She says one of the big problems in the Elk River spill was that West Virginia American Water had neither. Kunkel says the PSC investigation could force the utility to address those failings. For its part, West Virginia American Water says it had no reason to think it was doing anything wrong but Kunkel says that’s part of the broader problem, we tend to assume the water supply is fine. “Until there’s the major catastrophe or disruption in supply, it definitely tends to be one of those things people take for granted,” she says.
Kunkel notes, nearly 40 percent of the clean, treated water in the Kanawha Valley leaks away before reaching consumers. She says much of the nation’s water infrastructure is falling apart. “We’re really living on past investments,” Kunkel says. “Maintenance backlog and all the old pipes that need to be replaced. Federal funding for infrastructure has declined over the last 30 to 40 years. More and more of the burden has fallen to local jurisdictions.”
Since the Freedom chemical spill and the algal bloom that contaminated Toledo’s water, some critics have suggested people are over-taxing that natural system. Some have put in rain barrels. Kunkel says that’s a good option.