America’s Next Flint

By Stuart Smith

America’s drinking water is under assault—from careless dumping of hazardous wastes to the lead pollution caused by our ancient infrastructure. Yet rarely do these tales of governmental neglect or industrial abuses make it onto the national radar screen. The Flint, Michigan, lead pollution story was different—a “perfect storm” that combined race, the poisoning of countless children, and gross negligence on the part of the state government. Yet even that story didn’t become a national cause celebre right away. The truth is that, as terrible as the Flint situation has been, there are other threats to water across the U.S. that are just as bad…or arguably worse.

One huge environmental crisis facing the nation right now involves a chemical known as C-8, or PFOA, which stands for perfluorooctanoic acid. This is a deadly carcinogen—used in a number of household substances, most notably Teflon coatings—that persists forever and is increasingly found in the human bloodstream. The risk of exposure is dramatically greater for citizens who live in the shadow of factory sites that used C-8 in the industrial process.

Earlier this year, the New York Times, in the fashion of a legal thriller, laid out what happened when a white-shoe corporate lawyer decided to investigate a tip that a DuPont chemical facility was polluting a stream in Vienna, West Virginia, a place where the attorney had relatives. His new client was a farmer, Wilbur Tennant, who’d sold a parcel of land to DuPont for a landfill:

“DuPont rechristened the plot Dry Run Landfill, named after the creek that ran through it. The same creek flowed down to a pasture where the Tennants grazed their cows. Not long after the sale, Wilbur told Bilott, the cattle began to act deranged. They had always been like pets to the Tennants. At the sight of a Tennant they would amble over, nuzzle and let themselves be milked. No longer. Now when they saw the farmers, they charged.

“Wilbur fed a videotape into the VCR. The footage, shot on a camcorder, was grainy and intercut with static. Images jumped and repeated. The sound accelerated and slowed down. It had the quality of a horror movie. In the opening shot the camera pans across the creek. It takes in the surrounding forest, the white ash trees shedding their leaves and the rippling, shallow water, before pausing on what appears to be a snow bank at an elbow in the creek. The camera zooms in, revealing a mound of soapy froth.

‘‘‘I’ve taken two dead deer and two dead cattle off this ripple,’ Tennant says in voice-over. ‘’The blood run out of their noses and out their mouths.…They’re trying to cover this stuff up. But it’s not going to be covered up, because I’m going to bring it out in the open for people to see.’’’

In spite of the damning evidence, it took the lawyer, Rob Bilott, years to convince DuPont, local officials, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that PFOA from the facility was not only contaminating Tennant’s farm but polluting the groundwater for Vienna, where the chemical plant is located, and several neighboring communities. That was alarming news. As the lawyer researched the case, he found evidence that DuPont had known the health risks of C8 going back to the 1950s, and that its own tests going back to the 1960s showed increased risk of liver cancer, birth defects, and a host of other serious ailments.

Despite those findings, which were bitterly fought by the company, little has been done to clean up the problem that has continued to pose risks for the drinking water used by roughly 100,000 people. Just last week, new tests of tap water in the Vienna area were judged under new, tougher federal standards for C8 that have finally been put into place. Those standards show the water is now officially unsafe to drink:

“Three West Virginia communities are changing their water sources after the federal Environmental Protection Agency released Thursday a new national standard for C8, a chemical that for years contaminated the drinking water of Wood County communities and is linked to cancer, thyroid disease and dangerously high blood pressure in pregnant women.

“The EPA’s move caused immediate action, as West Virginia regulators on Thursday advised Vienna residents not to drink or cook with their water, based on test results over the past couple of years.

“‘The Bureau for Public Health is working with the town of Vienna to implement appropriate precautions, which will include a “Do Not Drink” advisory until additional testing and evaluation takes place,’ said Dr. Rahul Gupta, commissioner of the state Bureau for Public Health. ‘The Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety will assist those affected by the EPA’s advisory, and the state will assist in securing installation of new filters.’

“‘Two other public water systems in West Virginia, located in Parkersburg and Martinsburg, were also affected by the new EPA thresholds. They have taken immediate action by using additional water sources to provide water.’”

This is a national scandal—perhaps even worse than Flint, since residents in this area of West Virginia were allowed by regulators to drink this level of tainted water for years.

Like Flint, it’s unclear when—if ever—the residents of Vienna will be able to drink their tap water safely again. It’s the price of years of neglect of our most precious resource, the water that we drink. And it will take years of determined effort, in a whole lot of communities, to make things right again.

Learn more about my fights against polluters in low-income neighborhoods in Mississippi and Louisiana in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America.

The Stuart Smith Blog, May 24, 2016