Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Truth About Water

For the past several months, the New York Times has been running a series of supposedly hard hitting investigative pieces on water quality in the United States. Earlier this week I happened to catch part of the syndicated Dr. Oz program, in which the good doctor devoted half an episode to the threats from our drinking water, culling most of the information presented from the New York Times series. And on Thursday, October 22, the Times followed up it's series with an editorial calling for more money and more regulation to fix these dangerous problems.

I've blogged about this before, but the manner in which these types of stories are reported are downright disgraceful, pure agenda driven reporting. It's not that any of the information here is wrong, but, to go back to this blog's theme that narratives matter, the narrative here is a story that should be unrecognizable to anyone familiar with the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, business and regulators alike.

The most damning story is told in this Charles Duhigg piece on Clean Water Act violations, which is accompanied by a database of Clean Water Act violations. The theme of the piece is that the Clean Water Act is not enforced as strictly as it should be by state regulatory bodies. The database chronicles the millions of violations made by polluters and notes how few of those violators have faced fines. Several stories are told, most notably the one about the West Virginia coal mining town, about drinking water supplies that have been polluted by activities that presumably should be Clean Water Act violations. The end result is a scare story, designed to worry people about the safety of our drinking water supply and designed to push a solution of more forceful and heavy-handed regulation. The problem is as I mentioned above, that the facts may be correct, but the story lacks any comprehension of the regulated world of public drinking water and discharge permits. The individual stories of polluted drinking water may well be serious issues that require some form or another of government action (water can be a very complicated issue), but there's no evidence that justifies portraying them as indicative of a nationwide problem.

First off, some basics on the difference between the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Clean Water Act regulates polluters, or really, anyone making a point discharge into a regulated body of water. This includes, as the article indicates big companies, small companies, and, as the article neglects to mention, municipal and other government sources of pollution. The term pollution itself is a bit misleading, as the Clean Water Act doesn't ban pollution, just restricts it. Polluters obtain a permit, usually obtained through the appropriate regulatory agency within their state which indicates the limits of what can be discharged into the given waterways. The permits are industry specific and require monitoring on varying schedules, once again, in accordance with the nature of the pollution. The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates all public water systems rather broadly, requiring water quality monitoring at various intervals in accordance with the size and nature of the system.

What's driven the New York Times story is not the facts of polluted water, of which they have only several specific stories to tell, but the language of regulation, which tells us the following:

Records analyzed by The Times indicate that the Clean Water Act has been violated more than 506,000 times since 2004, by more than 23,000 companies and other facilities, according to reports submitted by polluters themselves. Companies sometimes test what they are dumping only once a quarter, so the actual number of days when they broke the law is often far higher. And some companies illegally avoid reporting their emissions, say officials, so infractions go unrecorded.

Environmental groups say the number of Clean Water Act violations has increased significantly in the last decade. Comprehensive data go back only five years but show that the number of facilities violating the Clean Water Act grew more than 16 percent from 2004 to 2007, the most recent year with complete data.


Some violations are relatively minor. But about 60 percent of the polluters were deemed in “significant noncompliance” — meaning their violations were the most serious kind, like dumping cancer-causing chemicals or failing to measure or report when they pollute.

The problem is, none of this data is indicative of any environmental or health hazards. The thrust of the narrative is that these violations are a cause for alarm, but there's miles and miles of difference between a regulatory violator and a polluter. As the article itself indicates, significant violations include "failing to measure or report when they pollute." Maybe it sounds bad on the surface, but let's unpack those words. Discharge permits require specific monitoring during specific time periods. And ask anyone subject to any form of regulation and they'll tell you that the biggest problem is paperwork. Being very familiar with the Clean Water Act I can say for certain that a number of those polluters in "significant noncompliance" are guilty of having committed a paperwork violation. Monitor in the wrong time frame and you're in "significant noncompliance." Monitor for the wrong parameters in the wrong time frame and your in "significant non-compliance." Monitor in the correct time frame, for the correct parameters, but using a method the EPA deems unacceptable, and once again, maybe you'll find yourself in "significant noncompliance." My guess is that a large percentage of these violations are paperwork violations, but that's just a guess. I can't be sure, but neither can the New York Times or Mr. Duhigg without any of the specifics. On it's own, the data tells us a lot about regulation, but tells us very little about pollution or clean water.

There are other major problems here as well. The focus here is the Clean Water Act, with nary a mention of the state and local laws that protect watersheds and public drinking water supplies. These laws vary by state, mostly because drinking water circumstances vary a great deal according to each state's geography. Connecticut for example has very strong watershed protection laws, such that bodies of water that receive point sources of pollution are not intermingled with the drinking water supply. This is not the case in some other states, where local conditions necessitate different sorts of protections and the strict laws of a Connecticut would result in either no business and industry or no public drinking water. The larger point is that a multitude of laws and various layers of government are supposed to protect water quality. The individual cases cited in the Times piece are relevant and should not be dismissed out of hand, but again, the connection between these specific instances and a larger national problem is tenuous to say the least.

The underlying assumption seems to be that regulation can solve everything, but even in the West Virginia coal mining case cited in the article, stricter regulation wouldn't have prevented the groundwater contamination that occurred. According to the story, the coal mining companies exceeded the limits on their discharge permits and were never cited or fined for doing so. But a fine or a citation wouldn't have change the fact of the discharges, nor would it change the discharges made within the limits of the permit. The biggest problem here was a poor assessment of the ground water situation as those discharges shouldn't have been permitted at any levels if they were likely to contaminate a drinking water supply. The lack of after-the-fact enforcement through the Clean Water Act is sort of besides the point as all of us, big government liberals and small government libertarians don't like the idea of poisoned drinking water in the first place.

That such a major story could miss the target is disappointing, but hardly surprising. Journalists still do a decent job on some subjects, but the intersection of law and science, a notoriously complicated affair, is not one of those subjects. I referred to this as agenda-driven reporting and I don't mean the sort of blatant biases that are easily weeded out. What I refer to is the pernicious sort of bias that permeates the mainstream narrative, in the case, the narrative that a heavy-handed can and should prevent all harms in the world. Unlike some, I have no problem with this viewpoint being presented in the context of news, so long as this viewpoint is made clear, rather than hidden beneath the facade of neutral reporting. More importantly, I'd like such a story to show some understanding of the subject matter in question, more than could be gleamed by reading through the EPA website. Yes, Charles Duhigg has come up with a monstrous amount of data, but without context, that data lacks real meaning.


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