From sea to sea — our oozing, flaming, smelly contaminated US water

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

The headlines this week have been rife with news about water contamination, current and historic. Some involves pollution that has malingered since the 1970s.

Consider today's news and see if you don't see the same trend I do. First we deny or ignore the problem. This is followed by extended periods of inaction and protracted debate as polluters stall and officials equivocate. This is followed by acknowledgement and clean up, but not enough clean up. We need to convert this process to a quicker two-step — identify problem, enact solution.


From State Impact Pennsylvania comes a story that state Department of Health employees were told to remain mum on Marcellus Shale drilling. One retired employee says she was told not to return phone calls from citizens who called the health department with health concerns related to natural gas drilling or "fracking" in their area.

That's not your standard public agency protocol, and we’re guessing that the PA health department is under serious pressure to sidestep the fracking controversy.


Gasland Part II -- Steve Lipsky of Texas

There's new info surfacing about the water wells near Fort Worth, Texas that burst into flames because there's methane in thar water. The why and how of this matter has been with us for four years, since Steve Lipsky discovered that his well water was flammable in 2010. Is this caused by the natural migration of methane into the water, or leakage from fracked gas wells nearby? The debate burns on, just like Lipsky’s water spout.

In fairness to state regulators, who've said they cannot pinpoint the source of the methane, it can be difficult to determine the origins of stuff bubbling up from the ground. Look at what happened to the Clampetts, they had oil and didn't even know it ’till Jed saw that “Texas tea” burbling. Of course, then they did figure it out and moved to Beverley Hills.

But that begs the central question, does your water hose burst into flames? Does anyone’s except for those folks living amid the fracking boom?

A Dallas reporter says the proof that the gas fracking is to blame can be found in recent tests show that the chemical composition of Lipsky's water contamination matches almost exactly the chemical profile of two nearby gas production wells. You can see the story at WFAA-TV .


Pennsylvania is suing oil companies over environmental damage caused by an additive in gasoline known as MTBE. This harmful chemical was put into gasoline in the 1970s and taken out, incrementally, decades later. But it continued to leak from underground storage tanks, where more than 3,000 "releases" of gasoline (translation:  "spills") have occurred over the past 25 years.

About three-quarters of these releases allowed MTBE into groundwater, and now the state wants remuneration for all that it's paid to clean up this pollutant, which is particularly persistent and doesn’t cling to soil like better behaved chemicals but zips right on through into the water.

Once in the water, a tiny bit of MTBE can render it useless “due to foul and putrid smell and taste," as the Attorney General's office put it, as quoted in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

So stay with me here. The GOOD THING about MTBE is that when it exceeds safe levels in water — levels that say, have been shown to cause cancer in animals — it makes the water smell like turpentine.

So if your water smells like turpentine, you should probably call the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Hotline: 800-426-4791.

The EPA reports that many states have been dealing with the MTBE release/spill issue since the 1990s.


The Environment America's Research and Policy Center reported this week that Indiana can claim the prize as number one in the nation for toxic releases into waterways.

Indiana, chromium pollution
Sites of chromium pollution in Indiana.

Among the 17 million pounds of toxics dumped into Indiana waterways at last count (2012), were chromium, lead and nickel, or respectively, a verifiable carcinogen, a heavy metal notorious for reducing IQs in exposed children and a metal that's both an effective alloy and lung irritant.

Indiana health officials said the report was unfair because it counted all toxic "releases,” including incidences in which chemicals are transported to a waste site, a process that doesn't necessarily contaminate the environment.

The report identified the toxic waste as coming from industries, businesses and agriculture.

Despite Indiana's distinction as the state with the most toxic releases, the Environment America report chronicled a vast dumping of toxics across the US, in every state, totaling 206 million pounds of crud dumped into watersheds, rivers and lakes. Some of the worse dumping grounds:

  • The Great Lakes – 8.39 million pounds
  • Chesapeake Bay – 3.23 million pounds
  • Upper Mississippi River – 16.9 million pounds
  • Puget Sounds – 578,000 pounds

"America's waterways should be clean – for swimming, drinking, and supporting wildlife," said Ally Fields, clean water advocate with Environment America Research and Policy Center. "But too often, our waters have become a dumping ground for polluters. The first step to curb this tide of toxic pollution is to restore Clean Water Act protections to all our waterways."

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