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On Tap: Seth Siegel’s Masterful Examination of America’s Drinking Water Crisis

Friday, November 1, 2019

“Troubled Water: What’s Wrong With What We Drink.” Seth Siegel. St. Martin’s Press. 2019. 339 pages.

Top officials at the Environmental Protection Agency had a bold idea: Require water companies to run the nation’s most polluted tap water through the treatment plant equivalent of a Brita water pitcher.

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It was 1975. A few years earlier, an upstart public interest outfit called Environmental Defense Fund, fresh from its successful campaign to ban the insecticide DDT, had publicized water test results that found industrial chemicals in New Orleans tap water. EDF scientist Robert Harris linked the contamination to elevated cancer rates.

Controversy swirled, and the EPA, an agency then just four years old, conducted followup tests that found “traces of 66 chemical compounds” coming out of New Orleans’ taps, raising further alarm in Louisiana and beyond.

The EDF report and other fresh investigations had prompted Congress to adopt drinking water regulations for the first time under the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. It was up to the newly established EPA to deal with the mess.

That’s just the start of the story that Seth Siegel masterfully explores in his latest book, “Troubled Water: What’s Wrong With What We Drink.” Water utilities to that point operated under state law, but state agencies couldn’t even manage to reliably count the number of water systems they regulated, much less guarantee the quality of the tap water supplied.

Water treatment focused on sand bed filtration to remove coarse contaminants, and jolts of chlorine disinfectant to prevent water-borne diseases such as typhoid, cholera and bacterial infections. Utilities didn’t routinely test for chemical contaminants, and newly developed methods of finding very low levels of industrial pollutants in drinking water were still largely confined to research laboratories.

EWG talks to Seth Siegel, author of “Troubled Water”

Faced with the prospect of regulating thousands of water systems for dozens of newly discovered chemical contaminants, many of them carcinogens, and with no clear understanding of their health effects, the EPA’s brand-new drinking water program hit on the idea of simply sopping up as much of the pollutant load as possible before it reached consumers.

The agency decided it would require water utilities to add granular activated carbon (similar to what’s used in Brita pitchers) to their filtration systems, which would absorb a great deal of the contamination. It would control odor and improve taste, to boot. So in 1975 the agency issued a regulation ordering that fix.

“The industry, of course, the water industry, was very concerned about that,” recalled Joe Cotruvo, then a top agency official, in an oral history of EPA’s drinking water program. “Very incensed about it.”

What followed, Cotruvo remembered, was “a tremendous comment period, thousands of comments, literally thousands of comments came in, essentially all negative to the effect that it wasn’t feasible, it was expensive, it wasn’t a proven technology.”

The EPA folded under the pressure. As Siegel details, that established a pattern that has defined the agency’s drinking water program ever since – with profound consequences for America’s health.

In his eminently fair but compelling account, Siegel describes how the EPA came to be sharply constrained by the political power of water utilities. Faced with contamination problems, the tap water industry’s lines of defense commonly resemble tactics deployed by the water’s polluters.

In fact, the two putatively opposed interests often join forces during regulatory proceedings, questioning water test data and the scientific case for public health, calling for endless additional research to forestall action and decrying the cost of addressing the problem. 

“Troubled Water” opens with the saga of Hoosick Falls, the small town in upstate New York whose residents were harshly awakened to the contamination of their tap water with toxic PFAS chemicals – first made notorious by the Teflon chemical PFOA – that were irresponsibly handled by a factory in the town. Siegel has a journalist’s knack for bringing stories to life through the eyes of people who have lived them, as he does when tracing the story of Hoosick Falls through Michael Hickey, a citizen turned activist by the death of his father to kidney cancer, a disease linked to PFOA exposure.   

Siegel profiles a number of leaders in the fight to clean up America’s tap water, foremost among them my friend and hero Erik Olsen of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the dean of tap water expertise in the American environmental movement, and David Zwick, the late legendary leader of Clean Water Action. (“Troubled Water” also describes EWG’s research and advocacy, and the leadership of our visionary co-founder, Richard Wiles.)

Siegel’s book is indispensable, and very readably so, to understanding why America’s tap water is so contaminated and what it will take to solve the problem. Early on he concludes, a bit too charitably, perhaps:

If this book has no villains, perhaps it is fair to say that there are many culprits and bystanders. These people include some elected officials, some heads of regulatory agencies, and some of those running water utilities. On their watch, they have negligently or recklessly allowed America’s drinking water to put our health at risk, even while new technologies and smart governance could have been improving it.

In the decades since the EPA was forced to withdraw it as a standard treatment technique, water utilities nationwide have deployed new ways of using granular activated carbon to clean up tap water before it leaves their plants. Such treatment removes weedkillers that foul water supplies in the Midwest, and PFOA and related PFAS chemicals that taint Hoosick Falls and thousands of other communities. In most of these cases, water utilities, city councils or citizens have had to sue polluters to make them cover the cost of carbon treatment.

So although the mass application of carbon filtration is not suited to every location or contaminant, rethinking ways to prevent and clean up pollution – and make polluters pay for it – is exactly the kind of heroism Seth Siegel is recruiting in “Troubled Water.” He concludes: “Let’s get the drinking water we deserve.”

He might have added: “No one else will get it for us.”

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