As spring arrives, thousands of people will take to our local trails, rivers and streams. We’ll watch as our kids play on stream banks, wade in the water or reel in a fish. We were recently reminded that we can’t take those moments for granted.
As reported by The News and Observer in the April 18 news article “Stay out of stream near site of PCBs,” state health officials warned Triangle residents not to play in, fish or have any contact with a stream near the Ward Transformer Superfund site. The stream eventually flows into the Brier Creek Reservoir. A recent study concluded that polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, left over from decades of pollution at the site near Raleigh-Durham International Airport posed an immediate threat to the public, particularly young children.
This warning is especially relevant today, when many clean water protections that safeguard our communities are under attack. Environmental protections are a frequent target of big polluters and the politicians they support. To be sure, it often costs more for industry to limit the toxic pollutants it puts into the water we drink and to take responsibility for its pollution. It’s cheaper to wash PCBs downstream or to spray them on the ground, as Ward Transformer officials were previously convicted of doing along rural roads.
As last week’s warning makes clear, however, those costs aren’t eliminated; they’re passed on to people through contaminated drinking water, jeopardized health, spoiled fishing holes and streams that are off-limits, sometimes for decades.
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The Ward Transformer site is hardly alone. The story of a river polluted by PCBs is familiar to residents of West Badin in Stanly County.
For almost a century, the world’s third largest producer of aluminum, Alcoa Inc., owned and operated an aluminum smelting facility near Badin Lake. Hazardous substances used in or created by aluminum production, including PCBs, were dumped at the facility and throughout the predominantly African-American community, causing significant groundwater and surface water contamination.
Alcoa’s toxic waste continues to leak pollutants, including cyanide and trichloroethylene – the same pollutant that poisoned Marines and their families at Camp LeJeune, into groundwater at and near the abandoned facility. In West Badin, polluted groundwater infiltrates the storm water system before ultimately flowing into nearby streams that run through the woods where people hunt and fish.
The list of threats to clean water is long and includes hazards such as unlined, leaking coal ash pits, untreated sewage and polluted runoff. Almost two years ago, Duke Energy pleaded guilty 18 times to nine Clean Water Act crimes at its coal ash sites across the state. Wastewater treatment plants periodically discharge untreated sewage into our rivers, such as the 3.5 million gallons of raw sewage dumped into the Haw River near Burlington in 2014 and the 250,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled into Swift Creek in Johnston County earlier this month. Polluted runoff from industrial animal operations, lawns, streets and parking lots contribute to algal blooms that threaten our drinking water reservoirs, Jordan Lake and Falls Lake, as well as estuaries farther downstream.
The principle behind the Clean Water Act and our state water laws is simple: To protect clean water – from small streams to our rivers to the water coming out of our faucets – pollution has to be controlled at its source.
Examples like the Ward Transformer site, Badin Lake and countless others prove time and again how much clean water protections are needed. Since the Clean Water Act was passed 45 years ago, we’ve made significant progress in protecting our waters, in large part thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency’s research, expertise and enforcement efforts, not to mention its support and funding of state enforcement and monitoring.
But the work to protect clean water for our communities isn’t finished. Proposals by the Trump administration to eliminate protections provided by the Clean Water Act and drastically cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget put our water in danger.
As last week’s warning makes clear, much is at stake. For more than 40 years, the Clean Water Act has held polluters accountable for their pollution. It has appropriately made controlling pollution a cost of respective industries. The Trump administration seeks to shift that cost to the public, giving polluters a pass. The lingering pollution downstream of the Ward Transformer site is a reminder to us all as we watch our kids play in streams and lakes, reel in a fish or drink a glass of ice water on a warm spring day – the cost of eliminating clean water protections is simply too great.
Geoff Gisler is a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.