AMY GOODMAN: An investigation by the New York Times has found chemical companies have violated the Clean Water Act more than 500,000 times in the last five years. Most of the violations have gone unpunished, with state regulators taking significant action in just three percent of all cases.
Although some of the cases entailed minor violations, a majority of 60 percent were deemed to be in "significant noncompliance." These cases are of the most serious and include the dumping of cancer-causing chemicals or failing to measure or report pollution. An estimated one in ten Americans has been exposed to drinking water that has dangerous chemicals or falls short of federal standards. Forty percent of the nation's community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act at least once, exposing over 23 million people to potential danger.
The investigation was published two days after the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would freeze permits for seventy-nine mountaintop removal sites pending a review of their compliance with the Clean Water Act. The move affects mines in four states: Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Tennessee.
Charles Duhigg is the New York Times reporter who is carrying out this investigation. His article appeared in Sunday's edition of the New York Times. It's called "Clean Water Laws Are Neglected, at a Cost in Suffering." Charles Duhigg joins me here in the firehouse studio.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
CHARLES DUHIGG: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
AMY GOODMAN: A remarkable exposé.
CHARLES DUHIGG: Oh, thanks.
AMY GOODMAN: Just lay it out for us.
CHARLES DUHIGG: Well, we spent about ten months collecting records from every single state and the EPA, trying to figure out exactly what was going on with the nation's waters. And what we discovered was that the Clean Water Act was passed about almost four decades ago with the intent of giving regulators the power to monitor what goes into our waterways and then punish people who violate their permits. And everyone who dumps something into a waterway has to have a permit. And what we found is that only about three percent of people who violate their permits ever get punished. And so, somewhat unsurprisingly, the rate of violations has gone up significantly, because companies and workplaces know that they can break the Clean Water Act without getting punished for it.
AMY GOODMAN: You begin your piece in West Virginia.
CHARLES DUHIGG: That's right.
AMY GOODMAN: Why?
CHARLES DUHIGG: We focus on West Virginia for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's a microcosm of the problems that have been around this issue. It's a national issue, and states all over the country confront this. But in West Virginia, in particular, you see a real struggle and tension between industries, most particularly coal extraction, which is West Virginia's largest industry, and the environmental priorities of people who want to protect waterways. And so, there's a number of communities in West Virginia that are really suffering because their water has been, they claim, ruined by the practices of nearby coal companies. And the state agency has -- the environmental agency has been less vigorous in protecting it.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about Jennifer Hall-Massey.
CHARLES DUHIGG: Jennifer is a mother of two kids right outside Charleston, West Virginia, which is the state capital. And so, this isn't sort of dark corner of Appalachia.
Around her home are mountains that have been mined for coal for years. One of the things that coal companies do is when they extract coal, they wash it in the water, and they put chemicals in it to take out the impurities. The waste that's left over, the water, is called sludge or slurry, and it contains all of these dissolved minerals and chemicals. They put those in these big ponds called impoundments, or they pump them back underground into abandoned mine shafts. And what Jennifer claims, as well as her community, is that the water has filtered out of those mine shafts and those big lagoons and destroyed the local water supplies, which they use for drinking.
Amy Goodman is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!