Monday, December 07, 2009

Your Water Is Not Safe ... If You're An Idiot

We did this once before and now it's time for the second round. Tuesday's New York Times led with this article by Charles Duhigg, claiming 20% of the nation's water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

I'll stop Mr. Duhigg right there as the term "water treatment system" is extremely misleading. EPA data (and drinking water regulations) refer to public water systems, not water treatment systems. The difference is in the details, as water treatment systems bring to mind large scale operations that provide water to hundreds of thousands of people. The truth is, the vast majority of public water systems are not the large facilities which that language brings to mind. According to the EPA's data, which dates back to the year 2000, there are 154,879 public water systems in the United States. Of those, nearly 90% (89.96% or 139,325) are water systems of varying classifications that serve fewer than 3,300 people. Many of these systems are literally groundwater wells, as any non residential wells serving the public are considered to be public water systems.

The thrust of the rest of the article is how little or nothing is done about public water systems which violate health standards. The evidence for this is the relatively few number of water systems which have been fined or punished by regulators, as if fines or punishment is the primary method of ensuring drinking water safety. I'll take a minute here to step back from my libertarian roots and give some credit to drinking water regulators for not being completely overzealous assholes. When regulators do show concern for health violations, they generally tend to be concerned with helping the affected water system bring it's drinking water into compliance and not with socking it to them. When public systems have health issues that remain unresolved, it's usually because there are no simple solutions. The Times article mentions arsenic and uranium, both of which can be naturally found in groundwater. If the bedrock in a given area with numerous groundwater sources of drinking water contains levels of elements that the EPA considers to be unacceptable, solutions can be costly if not downright impossible. The idea that fines and penalties for these systems would make people safer is just plain asinine.

I mentioned this in my post from a few months ago, but this is just shoddy, irresponsible journalism and the Times ought to be ashamed of itself. Once again there's been absolutely no effort to grasp the real meaning of these numbers, nor is there any effort to really investigate if and where Americans are actually drinking bad water. What we've got is simply data with no context, data that fails to address the causes and the possible solutions of contaminated drinking water. There's no questioning of the health limits set by the EPA and there's no recognition of the fact that these limits are bureaucratic and political, not particularly scientific. It's a scare story, pure and simple, and yet another indication that the passive acceptance of the regulatory state has made us all stupid.


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