This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.
WOLFFORTH, Texas – As many as 63 million people – nearly a fifth of the country – from rural central California to the boroughs of New York City, were exposed to potentially unsafe water more than once during the past decade, according to a News21 investigation of 680,000 water quality and monitoring violations from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The findings highlight how six decades of industrial dumping, farming pollution, and water plant and distribution pipe deterioration have taken a toll on local water systems. Those found to have problems cleaning their water typically took more than two years to fix these issues, with some only recently resolving decades-old violations of EPA standards and others still delivering tainted water, according to data from the agency’s Safe Drinking Water Information System.
Many local water treatment plants, especially those in small, poor and minority communities, can’t afford the equipment necessary to filter out contaminants. Those can include arsenic found naturally in rock, chemicals from factories and nitrates and fecal matter from farming. In addition, much of the country’s aging distribution pipes delivering the water to millions of people are susceptible to lead contamination, leaks, breaks and bacterial growth.
Experts warn contamination in water can lead to cancer, gastrointestinal diseases and developmental delays in children.
The EPA estimates local water systems will need to invest $384 billion in the coming decades to keep water clean. The cost per person is more than twice as high in small communities as it is in large towns and cities. The EPA and water treatment industry consider the coming years a crucial period for American drinking water safety as pipes and treatment plants built in the mid-20th century reach the end of their useful lives.
“We’re in this really stupid situation where, because of neglect of the infrastructure, we’re spending our scarce resources on putting our fingers in the dike, if you will, taking care of these emergencies, but we’re not doing anything to think about the future in terms of what we should be doing,” said Jeffrey Griffiths, a former member of the Drinking Water Committee at the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.
As water systems age, 63 percent of Americans are now concerned a “great deal” about drinking water pollution, according to a Gallup poll released in March that showed such worries at their highest level since 2001. Drinking water pollution has long been a top environmental concern for Americans — above air pollution and climate change, according to the same poll.
Many of the nation’s largest city systems violated EPA safety standards during the past decade, potentially exposing tens of millions of people to dangerous contaminants. New York City’s system, which serves 8.3 million people, failed standards meant to protect its water from viruses and bacteria two times during that period. The system still hasn’t addressed its most recent violation from February for not building a cover for one of its water reservoirs, according to EPA records.
The problems extend to the country’s large suburbs. Tacoma, Washington’s, system failed to meet a federally mandated timeline for installing a treatment plant meant to kill the parasite cryptosporidium. Chris McMeen, deputy superintendent for the Seattle suburb’s system, which serves 317,600 people, said the pathogen has never been found in dangerous levels in the city’s water. The system was also cited for failing to test for dozens of chemicals during the past decade.
In Waukesha, Wisconsin, 18 miles west of Milwaukee, decades of radium contamination from the city’s underground aquifer prompted officials to draft a proposal to draw water from Lake Michigan for its 71,000 residents. The Great Water Alliance, a $200 million project, is expected to be completed by 2023.
Thousands of rural towns have the most problems because communities often lack the expertise and resources to provide safe drinking water.
In several Southwestern states, 2 million people received groundwater tainted with arsenic, radium or fluoride from their local water systems, with many exposed to these chemicals for years before hundreds of small, low-income communities could afford to filter them out. Some still haven’t cleaned up their water.
Contamination in rural areas from these naturally occurring chemicals, found in the bedrock of aquifers, made Texas, Oklahoma and California the top states for EPA drinking water quality violations during the past decade.
“Sometimes it’s orange, sometimes it’s green, sometimes it’s brown,” said Melissa Regeon, a lifelong resident of Brady, Texas, which is trying to secure money for water system upgrades to filter out the radium in its water. “You just never know. It looks horrible.”
Small water systems in California’s San Joaquin Valley have battled both farming pollution and natural contamination from arsenic for years. High levels of nitrate from farm runoff and groundwater rock are linked to low oxygen levels in babies and cancer. Those levels have been found in systems serving 317,000 people during the past decade in the valley, 10,000 square miles of concentrated farming in the state’s center.
The crash of the coal mining industry in southern West Virginia has left hundreds of residents in charge of their own small water systems – some of which date to the Civil War. Residents in the mountains of Wyoming and Fayette counties say they are getting too old to maintain water treatment plants and pipes, and they lack funding to carry out proper treatment on the water, which comes from springs in old coal mines.
“What is pretty clear is that a lot of these small communities, especially in lower-income areas, have a real problem ensuring compliance or even treating the water,” said Erik Olson, director of the health program at the National Resources Defense Council. “A lot of these smaller communities, they don’t even have the wherewithal to apply for available funding.”
Drinking water quality is often dependent on the wealth and racial makeup of communities, according to News21’s analysis. Small, poor communities and neglected urban areas are sometimes left to fend for themselves with little help from state and federal governments.
In recent years, drinking water crises in minority communities, like Flint, Michigan, and East Chicago, Indiana, made national news when old pipes leached lead into the water of thousands for months before state and federal officials responded. In Texas, Corpus Christi’s water system shut down for nearly four days in December because of a chemical spill at an asphalt plant, closing schools and businesses throughout the predominantly Hispanic city.
“These are not isolated incidences, the Flints of the world or the Corpus Christis or the East Chicagos,” said Manuel Teodoro, a researcher at Texas A&M University who co-authored a report on the disproportionate effect of drinking water quality problems on poor minority communities.
“These incidents are getting media attention in a way that they didn’t a few years ago, but the patterns that we see in the data suggest that problems with drinking water quality are not just randomly distributed in the population — that there is a systemic bias out there.”
Many residents of Tallulah, Louisiana, where 77 percent of the population is black and 40 percent lives in poverty, have turned to bottled water as their crumbling utility failed to keep water free of toxic disinfectant byproducts. Systems serving thousands of others in predominantly black communities around the state have struggled to keep these carcinogens out of their taps.
Many Latinos along the U.S.-Mexico border who live in unincorporated low-income rural areas lack the resources to maintain their systems or don’t have access to treated water.
Although the EPA sets minimum drinking water standards, almost all state governments are in charge of testing requirements and operator licensing, creating a maze of regulations and protections that differ from state to state.
A 2011 Government Accountability Office report found the EPA’s database isn’t complete, with some states incorrectly reporting or failing to report many violations. The EPA also hasn’t created a rule for a new contaminant since 2000.
Millions of Americans are also exposed to suspect chemicals the EPA and state agencies don’t regulate. Two of these chemicals, perfluorinated compounds PFOA and PFOS, remain unregulated after decades of use as an ingredient in firefighting foam, Teflon and other consumer products. These perfluorinated compounds have been linked to low birth weights in children, cancer and liver tissue damage, according to the EPA.
“America’s drinking water remains among the safest in the world and protecting drinking water is EPA’s top priority,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement to News21. “More than 90 percent of the country’s drinking water systems meet all of EPA’s health-based drinking water standards every day throughout the year.”
The EPA did not make any officials available for an interview.
While most Americans get their water from local utilities, the 15 million homes with private wells, especially in rural areas, are vulnerable to the same contamination issues but are not required to install treatment systems. The limited data available shows wells in many parts of the country draw groundwater containing dangerous levels of toxins from naturally occurring elements and man-made sources.
Small systems, big problems
The majority of local water systems serve fewer than 5,000 people, accounting for a majority of the 97,800 instances when regulators cited water systems for having too many contaminants during the past decade.
For example, Wolfforth and Brady, two small communities in western and central Texas, received the most citations for water quality in the U.S.
Wolfforth, where the tallest structure is a blue and white water tower, racked up 362 violations in 10 years for arsenic and fluoride in its groundwater source. Since arsenic can cause cancer and fluoride can weaken bones, the contaminants required a rapid solution.
“There’s a lot of angst about how much money we spent, and there was a tremendous amount of angst about how long it took,” Newsom said. “It was just so long and so much money that we had tied up for so long.”
Even though the system is running, the city will send water notices to residents until the system doesn’t violate the arsenic standard for a full year. Many continue to buy bottled water instead of drinking from the tap.
“We need some more clean water,” said Shreejana Malla, who co-owns a convenience store in Wolfforth with her husband. “So I would want them to, as soon as possible, to get the clean water. I don’t feel comfortable taking a shower, but we’ve got to take a shower.”
The city got a loan and raised water rates about 30 percent to pay for the upgrades, Newsom said.
Generally, systems rely on customers to pay for upgrades, presenting a challenge for small communities who have fewer people to charge for water. Areas without growth are often forced to choose between keeping up with maintenance costs or keeping water payments low. The EPA and state governments provide some grants and low-interest loans, but there isn’t enough money available to meet most needs, and they often require complicated applications.
“The average person looks at (water) like electricity,” said Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. “They just want it to be there, and they want it to be at a fair price.”
For instance, 260 miles southeast of Wolfforth is Brady, a city proudly known as the “Heart of Texas.” The community is trying to secure funding from the state’s Economically Distressed Areas Program for a $22 million water system project to get rid of the underground radium contaminating its drinking water. This fund only has $50 million left, and Brady is not the only city in contention for the money, leaving some concerned about the future of Brady’s water if it doesn’t receive part of the last allocation.
“If we don’t get it this time and the state doesn’t reauthorize that program, I don’t know what we’ll do,” said Amy Greer, a sixth-generation farmer at the locally operated Winters Family Beef. “I really want our state legislators to know how terrible it is that they are not renewing a program that will help small rural communities face and tackle these kind of massive health and safety problems, and I’m just ashamed of them.”
Despite funding uncertainty and mounting pressure from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s drinking water authority, the city is determined to get clean water for its 5,400 residents.
“The answer is solving the water problem because EPA and TCEQ has placed a timeline on us,” Mayor Tony Groves said. “If we don’t do that, there’s always the risk that they could come in and say, ‘OK, you lose your water system, and we’re gonna pay somebody to operate your water system better than you’re operating it and you’re gonna pay for it.’”
What’s in the water?
While many communities with small systems, like Wolfforth and Brady, struggle to address contamination issues, thousands more of these communities aren’t sure if their water is safe because their systems don’t test properly or report the results.
In southern West Virginia coal country, a number of communities failed to test their water hundreds of times after the miners that operated them left when their camps shut down. Many of these systems are now run by the residents.
In Garwood, a 55-person Wyoming County town surrounded by coal mines, the community water system stopped testing in 2014.
“Everybody just up and quit,” said lifelong resident Jessica Griffith, who drank untreated water from an old coal mine for nine months before learning it wasn’t being tested. “There was no warning, no nothing. Nobody handed it over to anybody else.”
The stay-at-home mom and her neighbors say maintenance seems like a full-time job, and they can only afford to patch up leaks and fix busted pipes.
“We’ve just been trying to keep the water flowing because we don’t have the money to treat it,” Griffith said. “We don’t know how to treat it.”
Two hours north, Kanawha Falls Community Water in Fayette County was cited for not testing or reporting more than 2,000 times in 10 years, the most in the country. No one is sure when the system stopped being maintained, but residents say they experience the consequences daily. Joe Underwood, who had skull surgery after a four-wheeler accident, said he showers with a cap after doctors told him the town’s water gave him two infections near his brain.
“The old-style ways of getting water is not healthy,” Underwood said. “And I’m meaning that for people that have serious injuries. I’m meaning that for little babies. I’m meaning that for anybody that has any kind of health problems.”
The unincorporated community relies on volunteers like Bobby Kirby, nominated by his neighbors to be water system treasurer, to pour chlorine into the storage tanks to disinfect the water. After years of not testing and reporting, Kirby says the state threatened to arrest him for failing to turn in paperwork.
“They came here and said they was going to lock me up,” he said. “Well, I told them, ‘You can lock me up if you want to, but I don’t own it. I’m just a property owner that wants water.’”
The West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, the agency responsible for improving infrastructure in the state, announced several projects to link communities like Kanawha Falls and Garwood to surrounding city water systems. Kanawha Falls’ $1.8 million extension is scheduled to be completed by the end of the summer.
While some systems in West Virginia have no operators, other small systems throughout the country don’t have the money to ensure full-time maintenance.
Scotts Mills, a city of 370 tucked away in the tree-lined foothills of northwest Oregon, cannot afford to hire a full-time staff for its water system and relies on local volunteers to step up.
“We rely on a neighbor complaining about an odor or something like that. We really don’t have any staff to drive around and look,” said Dick Bielenberg, the city councilman in charge of water. “If there’s a water leak or something like that we’ll take care of that, sometimes with volunteer labor, sometimes we’ll hire an outside contractor, depends upon how big the project is.”
Resident Jake Ehredt volunteered to be the water commissioner when he moved into community three years ago. However, Ehredt is also a full-time water system operator for the neighboring city of Molalla and said he can only spend an hour or two a day in Scotts Mills for routine checks. While he is away, residents with water problems are directed to call Bielenberg by a sticky note on the city hall door.
“One thing we have out here is contact with our elected officials. We know them,” said Ron Hays, whose family has lived in and around Scotts Mills since 1899. “If the water main breaks, you know who to call.”
Though surveys from the Oregon Health Authority showed the city’s water system hasn’t violated any safety standards, Bielenberg says the city needs a plan for at least the next 20 years should any problems arise.
“There’s not a lot of money so you learn to get by and improvise,” Ehredt said. “We are going to work on updating little small things.”
According to the EPA, most of the $384 billion needed to keep the country’s water systems safe should go toward upgrading pipes buried underground that distribute the water — out of sight and mind to most Americans until one of them bursts.
“The plants are visible. If EPA makes a regulation, and you have to comply with it, then the utility manager can go to the board and say, ‘Hey, I have to do this, EPA is making me do it,’ and then get the money to build the treatment improvements,” said Roberson, of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. “It’s a little harder, then, when you’re talking about the pipes that are buried in the ground because you don’t see the pipes. You don’t know if you have a problem until you get a big leak or a big geyser comes out in the street.”
Even if water service is not disrupted by a pipe break, millions of miles of lead pipes in the U.S. are at risk of leaching the toxic metal into drinking water without proper oversight from system operators. In Milwaukee, about 70,000 homes are connected to the city’s water system with aging lead pipes, many of which run under low-income and African-American communities in the city’s northside neighborhoods. Many residents fear this has contributed to the city’s high rate of lead poisoning among children.
Pipes that leak or break can also introduce bacteria and chemicals from the surrounding soil after the water has already been treated.
Government officials acknowledge the daunting challenges ahead for water utilities. In the final months of the Obama administration, the EPA’s Office of Water published a report highlighting aging infrastructure, unregulated contaminants and financial support for small and poor communities as top concerns for drinking water quality going forward.
“The actions proposed here go far beyond what EPA alone can do; all levels of government, utilities, the private sector and the public each have critical roles to play,” the report said. “Utilities ultimately must take many of the critical actions needed to strengthen drinking water safety, and communities must be actively engaged in supporting these actions.”
Industry groups are sounding the alarm about the bill coming due for water infrastructure as it enters a “replacement era.”
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a “D” grade for the quality of its drinking water systems based on an evaluation of their safety, condition, capacity and other criteria. Of the 25 states with individual grades, none scored higher than a “C+.” Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska all received “D” level grades.
The American Water Works Association estimated water systems will need about $1 trillion in investment during the next 25 years just to maintain and expand water service. This price tag doesn’t include the costs associated with getting rid of lead service lines or upgrading water treatment plants.
“A part of that, not all of it, but a part of it, is a lack of investment when it should have started earlier,” Steve Via, American Water Works Association director of federal relations, said about the upgrades necessary in coming years.
News21 analyzed 680,000 violations from a 10-year period starting Jan. 1, 2007, in the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Information System. The database only contains active community water systems in U.S. states and tribal lands because they are the most likely to serve homes. The EPA data also shows how many people were affected by violations. The EPA has acknowledged this database might not reflect all violations that have occurred and some information may be incorrect.
The violations included two types: health-based violations and monitoring/reporting violations. Health-based violations are instances when water was found to be contaminated or not properly treated for contaminants. The story refers to these violations as water quality violations. Monitoring/reporting violations occur when a water system either fails to test for a contaminant or report its test result to the state and customers.
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.