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EPA’s Troubled Waters
Reporter/Producer: Harry Hanbury

Washington, DC
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

FRANK LAUTENBERG, US SENATOR (D-NJ): The untold story is the absence of regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency and the many hundreds of unregulated chemicals that are permitted to flow into America’s water supply. These include chemicals that are used in rocket fuel, gasoline additives, and pesticides.

BENJAMIN GRUMBLES, ASST ADMINISTRATOR, OFFICE OF WATER, EPA: I’m not in a position to give you the specifics on, but I know that we will follow up with specifics describing the 30 percent cut or how it was made in the context with the pesticides.

BARBARA BOXER, US SENATOR (D-CA): Well, I think it speaks for itself: open checkbook for Iraq, open checkbook for them, but we can’t find a few dollars here to protect the public. And that is rather stunning.

ED MERRIFIELD, PTOMAC RIVERKEEEPER: The waters of this nation belong to all of us to use, and nobody has the right to use them in a way that diminishes anybody else’s use.

VOICEOVER: The Clean Water Act is 35 years old and under assault like never before. But as the Ptomac riverkeeper, Ed Merrifield is sworn to defend it.

MERRIFIELD: The Clean Water Act is about as important a piece of legislation that’s ever been passed in this country. Written right into the act is the goal—it’s written right in there—that by the year 1985 we will be putting zero of our pollution into our rivers and streams—zero of our pollution. It’s very sad. I’m still working at getting us to 1985. That’s my job—get rid of the pollution in the water.

VOICEOVER: Today our waterways may look better than they did in the 1960s, when the Cuyahoga River routinely caught fire and inspired the Clean Water Act. But 39 percent of our rivers are too polluted for safe fishing and swimming.

MERRIFIELD: For years and years, the District of Columbia does not allow swimming because of health issues. This is not a healthy place. As we put this in, you’ll see changes in the numbers.

VOICEOVER: Polluters pour about 240 million pounds of toxins into US waterways each year. But what’s really got Ed worried these days are the chemicals that mimic the sex hormone estrogen. They appear to be causing male fish to produce immature eggs in their testes.

MERRIFIELD: If we know that these chemicals are in the water and causing these problems, and we know that all that water’s going downstream and some of it’s going into our drinking water pipes, we know that those chemicals are in the water that we’re drinking.

VOICEOVER: Over the past decade, intersex fish have been found in waterways throughout the US. Scientists suspect a combination of chemicals from farms and factories and pharmaceuticals flushed down our toilets.

MERRIFIELD: In a lot of the older cities—and Washington, DC, is a perfect example of this—we have what’s called combined sewer overflow. And what they do is they overflow into this water directly. It comes right out of our bathrooms and industrial waste, about 2.5 billion gallons of water and raw sewage. And this one right here, according to the old maps from the ’70s, this one is the one that would come right out of the white house in that area, right there.

VOICEOVER: To get a sense of this problem nationwide, I turned to clean water advocate Christy Leavitt.

CHRISTY LEAVITT, ENVIRONMENT AMERICA: Each year, about 850 billion gallons of raw sewage ends up in our waterways.

VOICEOVER: That’s billion with a B.

LEAVITT: Eight hundred and fifty billion—with a B—gallons of raw sewage.

INTERVIEWER: And in that raw sewage is pharmaceuticals, whatever anyone—Drāno, whatever anyone pours down the drain, right?

LEAVITT: Whatever goes down the drain ends up—if there’s an overflow, it ends up in the waterway.


VOICEOVER: This March, the Associated Press reported that the US water supply contains trace amounts of dozens of drugs, such as mood stabilizers, sex hormones, antibiotics, and anticonvulsants. The top EPA official responsible for water safety is Benjamin Grumbles, and the AP report put him in the hot seat.

BOXER: The Associated Press did your work. When a story like this breaks, why is it necessary for Senator Lautenberg to have to call a meeting of the sub—. Why aren’t you working day and night on this subject?

GRUMBLES: We are working very—.

BOXER: Why aren’t you saying to me today, “We’ve had a meeting with the FDA. We’re working together.” Have you required drinking water systems to monitor drinking water for even one pharmaceutical through the agency’s unregulated contaminant monitoring rules? Have you done that?

GRUMBLES: Not yet.

BOXER: You haven’t done it. Do you plan to do it?

GRUMBLES: We may. We are seriously—.

BOXER: When are you going to do that?

GRUMBLES: Well, Madam Chair, I don’t know, because we need to gather more information on that.

VOICEOVER: As the Associated Press revealed, the EPA has no national strategy to deal with pharmaceuticals in our water and no effective mandates to test, treat, limit, or even advise the public. But even in areas where the laws are clear, the agency is failing to do its job. Outside the Senate hearing room, I asked Grumbles to comment on one of the most startling findings by a recent report by Environment America.

INTERVIEWER: This report, Troubled Waters, found that 50 percent of water facilities around the country were not meeting or exceeded their permit limits under the Clean Water Act. What’s your response to that? What are you doing to change that?

GRUMBLES: Well, the EPA has put a priority in the enforcement program on wet weather flows.

VOICEOVER: Here Grumbles is talking about those sewage overflows we heard about earlier. But during his tenure as the nation’s top water official, the EPA has drastically cut the main program to help states and cities upgrade their sewer systems.

GRUMBLES: We also continue to place a national priority and enforcement priority on Clean Water Act violations.

VOICEOVER: Again the facts tell a different story. Last year, the Government Accountability Office issued a report on EPA enforcement that found grant funding to states and tribes dropped 22 percent between 2004 and 2006.

GRUMBLES: Continue to improve compliance under the Clean Water Act. Well, I think it’s partly how you measure compliance.

MERRIFIELD: I’m still not sure how we’re supposed to take this concept of compliance. If you’re not in compliance, that means you’re breaking the law, as far as I can tell. And if you’re breaking the law, why aren’t they enforcing it? You know, compliance is sort of a word to try to get around the fact that they’re polluting more than they should be polluting, and illegally polluting at that.

VOICEOVER: Since 2004, the Bush administration has removed thousands of waterways from Clean Water Act protection. The consequence is sure to be more toxins in our waters, our wildlife, and our own bodies.

MERRIFIELD: The damage that it’s doing to us? We don’t even know all the damage it’s doing to us. The water systems, there are chemicals in it that weren’t in it 30 years ago. We just don’t know what it’s doing to us. Until we get all the pollution out and keep it out, we’ll have problems.

TEXT ON SCREEN: This year Congress will vote on the Clean Water Restoration Act.

Camera: Garland McLaurin, Eve Qureini
Editing: Harry Hanbury
Closing Music: Lenny Williams


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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