“Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We The People Can Do About It,” by Erin Brockovich (with Suzanne Boothby), Pantheon Books, NY, 2020. This 363-page hardback gives an overview of water problems in the US. Brockovich is best known for the movie Erin Brockovich in which she took on water contaminated with chromium VI and won. Now she expands her efforts to additional environmental issues.
The first Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was expanded to become the Clean Water Act in 1974. The Environmental Protection Agency was created to protect human health and the environment from contamination by sewage, biological, radioactive, industrial or agricultural waste. In 2006, the Supreme Court failed to clarify what streams are regulated. In 2015, President Obama finalized the Clean Water Rule that extended coverage to isolated streams and wetlands. In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act regulated drinking water including that from underground sources. It requires EPA to set safety standards. If EPA decides not to regulate a substance, it can issue a health advisory as a non-enforceable guide. EPA sets maximum contaminant levels based on scientific evidence. Lack of data can delay regulations. PFOAs is given as an example where allowed levels have been reduced as more data became available. Later studies found them damaging to infants and breastfeeding mothers.
EPA has no safe level for lead. Until the Flint incident testing for lead was rare. Laws that require testing at schools and colleges are only now being enacted. EPA issued a Treatment Technique regulation known as the Lead and Copper Rule. Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Halliburton Loophole was created. It allows companies to not disclose the chemicals used in fracking.
Chloramine used as a disinfectant for drinking water is a focus. Brockovich claims it is corrosive and causes seal failures. Water treatment plants prefer chloramine rather than chlorine for better water taste and to minimize formation of toxic haloforms. Haloforms are created when organics in the water react with chlorine. All living systems–plants and animals–are organic. Organic contamination is common.
A chapter describes her efforts to deal with chromium contamination in California vs PG&E. Corporations can delay action by suppressing unfavorable research, coercing scientists, using flawed testing methods, ghostwriting articles, and selectively publishing results. She outlines procedures do deal with local problems. Collect news articles, attend meetings, and work with others in the area. Build grassroots support for your target.
Before the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, noone knew what chemicals were in use. Now we know 85,000 are in TSCA and 40,000 are in use. When enacted 60,000 chemicals were grandfathered without testing. So far only six chemicals have been regulated under TSCA: PCBs, asbestos, radon, lead, mercury, and formaldehyde. The list of known carcinogens is longer (currently 30) including tobacco smoke and alcoholic beverages. The suspected or anticipated list is much longer. In 2016, the Frank Lautenberg Chemical Safety Act required more testing. EPA selected candidates based on the number of people exposed. Ten are being tested.
Plastic fibers are found in 94% of water samples from across the US. Their health effects are unknown. This is the lint from your washer and drier. Cotton fibers, known to cause brown lung disease, are also present. She mentions bisphenol A, a weak endocrine disruptor. More than 90% of Americans have detectable BPA in their systems. BPA is used to make epoxy resins, some of which are coated inside food cans. BPA is also part of polycarbonate plastic. Most BPA is consumed in manufacture, but some unreacted material can be present. She also mentioned di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, used as a plasticizer especially for vinyl plastics. Alternative materials are available but selection is up to the customer. She feels regulations are inadequate.
Superfund is discussed. The US has 33,000 Superfund sites from industrial practices before environmental laws. From 1980 to 1996, Superfund was funded by a tax on petroleum and chemicals. Renewal was strongly opposed because the funds were mostly spent on legal fees; no Superfund sites were cleaned up. (In November 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act reauthorized an excise tax on chemical manufacturers, for ten years starting in July 2022.) Clean-up funds are limited; clean-up will take a long time. Efforts are made to stabilize sites to limit spread of contamination. She recommends that people review their water supplier’s quality report. Research contaminants reported on Google. Have your water tested.
The top toxins are listed with info on regulations and health effects. Included are chromium VI, chloramines, lead, perfluorinated chemicals (as PFOA), fracking chemicals, and trichloroethylene.
Details of recent water contamination incidents are described. In 2014, a tank of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol contaminated the water source for Charleston, WV. In 2000, in Martin Co., KY, 300MM gallons of coal slurry leaked into local rivers. Tyson, a leading producer of chicken, has a long record of water contamination from its chicken processing plants. In 2017, they planned a new plant in Tonganoxie, KS. Citizens concerned about pollution blocked the effort. In Hinkley, CA, chromium VI regs, unchanged from 1991, were reduced in 2014, but revoked in 2017 after a challenge in court. Clean-up has been slow.
In Poughkeepsie, NY they began to use chloramine for water treatment, but that resulted in increased corrosion, gaskets failing and brown water. They also had skin irritation and respiratory issues. With a voter approved bond issue, they switched to ozone for disinfection and biologically activated filters to remove organics. In 2012, when Tulsa planned to switch to chloramine, activists objected, but the switch was made over their objections. A list reports communities that considered chloramine and decided not to use it. In Arizona, granulated activated carbon was an effective alternative (probably to remove organics and reduce haloform formation using chlorine). Corpus Christi tried to use granulated carbon but was unsuccessful perhaps due to inexperience. They have not yet decided on chloramine. In Hannibal, MO, a fight that included a Facebook page got voters to reject use of chloramine. In 2018 they decided to use activated carbon. Columbia, MO has a Safe Water Coalition looking into their water treatment. They use chlorine in summer months and chloramine in winter. Turbidity is an issue.
The Flint story began when the state of Michigan appointed an Emergency Manager to deal with deficits in 2011. He decided to save money by switching from water purchased from Detroit to that from Lake Huron. While the new pipeline was under construction, they decided to use water from the Flint River in April 2014. The city’s water treatment plant was maintained as a back-up but had not been used since the 1960s. The Flint River had more organics and more bacteria. It required more chlorine and haloforms were a problem. They failed to add corrosion controlling chemicals (ie phosphates). Phosphate contamination of the Great Lakes is a concern. You are not surprised that Michigan officials were reluctant to add phosphates. Customers soon noticed yellow, brown, and orange water and high odor. Lead contamination was recognized only later. Flint reconnected to Detroit water in October, 2015. Resolving the lead corrosion problem took longer. Tap water in Flint is expensive–$15.80/thousand gallons vs a national average of $2/gal.
Fracking is a problem. In Oklahoma, used fracking water is injected into disposal wells. Injection is thought to cause earthquakes. In New York State fracking is prohibited due to health concerns.
Many military bases–at least 149–have contaminated ground water. PCBs, chemical warfare agents, radioactive waste, trichloroethylene, and PFOAs used in fire fighting foams are often found. At Camp Lejeune, NC the list includes permachlor dry cleaning fluid as well as TCE and benzene. Contaminated wells were closed in 1985; Camp Lejeune was named a Superfund site in 1989.
Perfluorinated chemicals remain a concern. The book reports they can be removed with activated carbon or ion exchange resins. Department of Defense tested 2688 wells near military bases and found 61% above EPA recommended levels. A total of 58 contaminated military sites are listed.
The Trump administration is criticized for its efforts to reduce funding for EPA. States also take responsibility for enforcing some regulations. They too can have limited resources.
Global warming is also a factor in water especially drought that reduces water availability. Water conservation is important. The book ends with suggestions for improvement. Readers should lobby for cleaner water and for better control of toxics. More testing is needed of many materials in commerce. Efforts must be made to correct the many problems accumulated before environmental regulations. We should do more to clean up Superfund sites.
This is an excellent introduction to the many aspects of clean water. An appendix lists sources for addition information. References. Index.