Friday, March 10, 2017

What Does America Drinking Water Look Like With Little-to-No Regulation?

The title may be an abrupt and possibly far-reaching statement on my part.  What is not far reaching is the fact that more (not less) regulation is needed.  The unknown in the equation (of course) is to figure out how to fund and get a system that works without corruption going immediately.   And if possible, have the regulatory agency be efficient too.   In the paragraphs below, I will show an example from last month in a Texas town whose water was impacted (shut down) as a result of a chemical spill.

At this point, you might be asking yourself the following question:

Where did this statement come from?

What has Mike been eating that has caused him to suddenly go toward the regulatory side?

The truth is that the topic of regulatory procedures has been on my mind for quite a while.  I work as an instrument manager at the Chemistry Department for a university.  Part of my job is to ensure that the students and researchers (students and faculty) do not 'blow' themselves to pieces or kill themselves while using our scientific instruments.  That may sound extreme, but a science department can be dangerous.  Take for example, the case out of UCLA with Prof. Patrick Harran, whose student researcher caught on fire while conducting an experiment (with extremely dangerous chemicals) that she was not trained or supervised to do.  She died as a result.

Not all science experiments are dangerous, nor do they result in a tragedy like that in Prof. Harrans laboratory.  Although, this topic brings to light regulatory procedures and the implementation/enforcement of them.  Currently, we have an incoming President-elect that does not believe in regulation.  Therefore, I thought that a blog post on regulation (a few thoughts) might help inform you (the reader) of the potential benefits/adverse effects of regulations.  The case that we will entertain is that of the chemical spill last month at a Valero plant in Texas near the town of Corpus Christi.

Safe Drinking Water

Everyone in the world deserves safe drinking water.  Since I live in the United States, I will restrict my argument to this nation.  There are several reasons (examples) to have regulation over water.  Each region of the United States should strive to protect bodies of water not just for environmental reasons, but to ultimately provide safe drinking water should the region rely on alternative water sources.  No where is this more apparent than the disaster that struck Flint (Michigan) over the last two years.

In a recent article in the journal 'Nature' titled "Regulatory reform puts US waters in jeopardy" the potential repeal of regulations specifically for water was highlighted:

Last week, US President Donald Trump signed another executive order to advance his “regulatory reform” agenda. Building on an earlier demand that agencies dump two regulations every time they issue a new one, the policy requires government officials to assess federal rules and recommend ways to repeal, replace or modify them. What all this actually means is anybody’s guess at this stage. One of the first major environmental regulations to be singled out, however, is the Clean Water Rule, a policy developed under former president Barack Obama to clarify which water bodies receive federal protection under the 1972 Clean Water Act.

The Waters of the United States rule, as it is also known, was designed to provide something that Republicans often say they want: regulatory certainty. And although it does definitively protect many wetlands, ponds and seasonal streams, it also excludes some that have been covered in the past — which helps to explain why many environmentalists have objected to it. If a sign of a good policy is that both sides complain about it, then this was excellent. The rule attracted dozens of lawsuits claiming that it exceeded the federal government’s authority, and it was blocked by a federal appeals court pending the outcome of litigation.

The current administration under President Trump does not necessarily enjoy making "global" or "Federal" (national level) regulations.  President Trump does claim to be concerned about 'safe drinking water' but does not like to regulate safe water from up top at the national level.  He made a promise during his campaign to have safe drinking water throughout the US.  Although, his choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency -- Scott Pruitt -- has caused controversy with wanting to dismantle the regulations set at the federal level.  Elected officials have even written in opposition of his nomination from the republican party (read this blog).  Scott Pruitt's ideas have set forth a firestorm of opposition from scientists who fear that not only drinking water will be affected, but changes to climate agreements will also be abandoned.  Therefore, we can expect change to occur which involves giving back regulatory power to the local level.

Water is a global problem and therefore, the regulations should stick.  Not go the other way.  The disaster in Flint (Michigan) is an example of giving authority back to the 'local level'.   Below is a picture of the quality of water that comes out of a tap when city officials try to cheat the system and ignore the residents claim of contamination:

Source: YouTube

The picture above is a split frame.  On the left hand side, a water bottle is held up at a city council meeting.  The contamination of the water is completely apparent.  On the right hand side, contaminated water is released out of a fire hydrant.  Obviously, water should not appear that color if declared safe for consumption by the governor.  The pictures above were taken from a video of the governor of Michigan declaring the water to be safe for consumption -- he is wrong.  Pictures like the one above raise the following question:

Should the governor be in power to declare the water safe for drinking?  

Again, safe drinking water is a 'national issue' not a state issue.  Every resident of the United States of America deserves safe drinking water.  Furthermore, the administration under President Obama passed legislation to protect waterways as highlighted in the article above:

Under Obama, the EPA and the Corps of Engineers attempted to create regulations to settle the issue. In January 2015, the EPA released a 400-page assessment documenting the full array of hydrologic, biological and chemical interconnections between isolated water bodies and their adjacent streams and rivers. Examples abound: contamination at the surface can migrate into shallow groundwater and re-emerge in a stream or pond somewhere else. Even seasonal water bodies can be crucial resources for plants and wildlife, and wetlands can provide protection from flooding and erosion.

The agencies issued their final rule in May 2015, creating simple criteria to determine which waters are covered by the Clean Water Act. For instance, water bodies within about 30 metres of a high-water mark of a tributary are included, as are any waters within about 450 metres of the high-tide line in tidal regions. In all cases, these limits are conservative; if anything, they should be increased. The Corps of Engineers made this quite clear when it raised concerns with the EPA about losing jurisdiction over water bodies it has long governed.

Most people are not aware of the potential mixing underground of water bodies.  Again, this is where science steps in and provides clear evidence that distinguishing between bodies of water in proximity of one another can be dangerous.  Especially, if the chemicals or contaminants from one have the potential to mix with another.

The average citizen does not consider this possibility.  Whereas the large corporations which operate in proximity or would like to develop a potentially dangerous operation do not care.  Not only do they not care, the potential profits drive the corporations to provide army of lobbyists to a wide range of government, from the federal level (congress) down through the local level (city councils).  Which begs the following question:

How can the average citizen or even an activist compete with large corporate entities to drive home the message of promoting safety first?

One way is to congregate a large audience of local residents to uprise against corporate actions.  Another would be to start a social media campaign.  But both of these actions usually occur at the stage of "reaction" -- after the damage has been done.  We need to be more "proactive" as a society before accidents occur which damage not only ecosystems which contain endangered wildlife, but precious water resources which are connected to others.  An example of what needs to be done is discussed below.  In Winneshiek County (in Iowa), residents decided to take matters into their own hands and shut down fracking which is known to cause earthquakes and ruin groundwater supplies.


Over the last decade, the controversial method of removing oil sand from the ground using chemicals dissolved in water known as "Fracking" has been linked to earthquakes and destroying ground water.  Yet, politicians continue to defend the corporate interests of 'big oil' at the expense of the environment.  In a recent article from the magazine "Government Daily" titled "Fracking Presents Big Problems That Towns Have Little Authority to Fix" the author brings up examples of local authorities having their hands tied in shutting down the practice due to restrictions at the state level:

In December, the Environmental Protection Agency released a study that found fracking can have a negative impact on local drinking water. Injection wells used in fracking have also been linked to earthquakes. The U.S. Geological Survey says the earthquake issue has been overstated, but such concerns drive down local home values and, with them, property tax receipts.
Given all the headaches, supervisors in Winneshiek County, Iowa, decided to call a time out a couple of years ago. The county put an 18-month halt on new fracking in order to study potential harmful effects and come up with regulations to deal with them. “I don’t think the board ever thought that it would be appropriate or legal, probably, to permanently ban it,” says County Auditor Ben Steines. “They used a temporary moratorium to make sure it was appropriately regulated.”
Winneshiek County was lucky. Lots of local governments that have sought to bring fracking to a halt, even temporarily, have had their actions blocked. Oklahoma and Texas, for example, have passed preemption laws to take regulatory authority over the fracking process away from localities. Last year, the Colorado Supreme Court said that the state was acting within its rights when it took similar steps. Notably, the court found that even the temporary moratorium approved in the city of Fort Collins was subject to preemption. “The most important thing is that this is an issue that’s decided state by state,” says Deborah Goldberg, an attorney with the advocacy group Earthjustice. “If there’s a locality thinking about trying to address oil and gas development, they really need to understand the legal landscape in their state.”

That is astounding.  State authorities can override a decision made at the local level.  After hearing such terrible stories, one might be pondering the following questions:

Why do cities have local jurisdiction?

Why not just operate at the state level?

What is the purpose of a city council? 

The questions above are of grave concern to those who inhabit the towns with state restrictions.

The job of enforcement through regulatory oversight seems to be thrown back and forth from the federal level to through the state level to the local level.  What is amazing to me is the blatant disregard for regulations by local governments or state legislature.  Currently, President Trump wishes to return regulation of water back to the 'local level'.  Which is fine if the local level has both the commitment and resources to ensure that every resident will receive safe drinking water.

Where issues start to arise is when the following situation appears on social media shown below:

While taking a walk down by the creek, you glance over to the creek and notice the picture above.  Where does your mind run at the moment?  Probably towards the thought of safety and concern over safe drinking water.  At that moment, you might be inclined to jump online and search for an explanation like the following from the news article:

A harmless dye had intentionally been added to the river, the Andorran Ministry of Health said a statement. "It is an action that has no impact beyond the visual," the ministry said, adding that the substance was harmless to both people and the natural environment and would dissolve in a few hours.
Albert Batalla, the mayor of Seu d’Urgell, one of the Spanish towns on the river’s banks, confirmed the information in a statement, explaining that the dye was being used to investigate a water bottling plant. "It is a harmless, non-toxic and bio-degradable dye that has been used for a water research,’’ he wrote.

What evidence does the government provide on the chemical dye to convince the public about the safety?  

Why should the residents of this local town in Italy trust the government?

If that were the case, then why did officials not warn the town about the exercise?

Something about the plan of attack did not go right and caused hysteria as a result.  Instead of potentially causing hysteria, why not plan ahead?


President Trump has vowed to give authority back to the states and local level.  In the case of safe drinking water, is that the best choice to make?  As I mentioned above, part of the regulatory process is testing the water.  Resources are scarce at the local level.  Not all towns (cities) are created equal with equal funding for regulation through testing and education.  Safe drinking water is a no brainer.  Each resident should have access to safe drinking water.  Otherwise, we are headed for disasters like in Brazil, where mine-waste-water spilled into a river.  I wrote about that here.

Disasters are preventable through regulation.  The regulation does not have to cripple business as the President assumes it would.  In fact, regulation can raise the bar across the world.  More intelligent design and regulation is required.  A more intelligent and safer economy results from these decisions.  We should be striving to elevate the regulation in this country by devoting more resources (funding) toward our federal agencies not less.

Until next time, have a great day!

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