The New York State Water Supply: We Can't Become Another West Virginia

By Ramsay Adams

Most of New York State's drinking water comes from right here in the Catskills, and it is renowned for its taste and purity. Our water is simply amazing, and we need to protect it for all of us who live here, and the 19 million people in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania that rely on water from our Delaware and Catskill wathersheds. Our Catskill water is so pure, it reaches the taps of New York City unfiltered. Sadly, for the most part, we take it for granted that its purity and supply is being protected with vigilence by governmental regulatory agencies. In our everyday lives, we just trust the water from our wells or municipal sources is safe and pure.  We also trust that our regulatory agencies are doing their most to protect us from pollution and spills into our water supply... 

The truth is that we should be much more watchful and cautious in making sure our water supply is protected. Case in point: There's an ongoing environmental disaster involving the water supply of hundreds of thousands of residents in West Virginia that we in the Catskills should be paying very close attention to in terms of protecting our own H2O. Earlier this month, over 7,500 gallons of a clear, licorice-smelling chemical used to process coal leaked from an old storage tank and spilled into the Elk River.  The accident took place near the largest water treatment plant in the state. Life came to a halt there with the resulting prohibition on using tap water. Over 300,000 residents of West Virginia were ordered not to drink the tap water. That chemical, Crude MCHM, which is primarily composed of a chemical named 4-methylcyclohexane methanol is very toxic, and there were immediate reports of rashes, stomach aches, and other ailments. After 10 days, restrictions on using tap water were lifted for most of those affected by the disaster, even though the licorice smell remained. Pregnant women are still being advised not to drink the water, while Governor Earl Ray Tomblin emphasized that tests indicated the water is safe under guidelines set by the US Centers for Disease Control, he also told a press conference he was not aware of a recommendation for home owners to flush their pipes until the smell is not present. He was not too reassuring when he told residents: "If you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking in this water, then use bottled water...I'm not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe. But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don't use it." Now as West Virginia officials, who are no strangers to environmental spills and lax regulation, scurry to deal with the health disaster, serious questions are being raised as to why there's so little regulation of the storage of these chemicals-and even worse, why there's so little knowledge by the Federal government and the medical field about the potential toxicity of chemicals like the one spilled into the Elk River. What stands out the most from the WV spill is how the Federal and state governments throughout the nation fail to monitor chemicals and their use in terms of protecting our water supplies. A recent article in the Washington Post's Health and Science section stated that "It has been 38 years since Congress passed a major piece of legislation regulating toxic chemicals, even though there is no disagreement that the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA, or Tosca) needs an overhaul" and that ""Chemicals in the United States are generally treated as innocent until proven guilty. A company does not have to prove that a chemical does not pose a health hazard in order to introduce it in the commercial market." Much like West Virginia, our state is way too lax in regulating chemicals.  Here in New York State, the controversy surrounding Fracking already highlights the dangerous nature of chemicals used and released in the fracking process, particularly to the water supply, and serves as a reminder of how lax the regulation of chemicals are in our own backyard.  In fact, several of the chemicals identified in the West Virginia spill are manufactured for fracking operations. In a report issued by Environmental Advocates in May, 2012, a dire warning was issued about the lack of regulation of the oil and drilling process and the flawed exemption of chemicals from being deemed hazardous waste: "Existing state laws and regulations do not require oil and gas companies to report with any specificity how much waste is being created, its chemical components, or how drilling waste is being disposed. We also discovered that much of fracking's waste would likely be classified as hazardous waste if it were not exempt under flawed state regulations." The lessons of the recent chemical spill in West Virginia need to be learned well, and implemented quickly, here in upstate New York. It's just not about potential fracking here in the Catskills, but about a broader, rudimentary need to protect our water supply from chemicals on a day-to-day basis. Right now, our water supply is woefully underregulated in terms of chemical storage and transportation, and with the boom going on right now in transmission pipes servicing the needs of the oil and gas industries in neighboring states, updated studies and regulations should be mandated immediately.

The time to take action is now, at both the local and state levels of government, before it is too late.  To find out what you can do to help, email us or visit Catskill Mountainkeeper today.

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