WASHINGTON -- Disney's new film, "A Civil Action", playing at theatres nationwide, may leave moviegoers wondering what the EPA is doing to protect drinking water near their homes.
"A Civil Action" dramatizes the lengthy and complex lawsuit surrounding the contamination of drinking water wells in Woburn, Massachusetts and the subsequent illnesses, including eight childhood leukemia deaths, among the families living there.
Problems like Woburn were the reason Congress created the Superfund in 1980, and gave the EPA authority to address health risks from improper disposal of hazardous waste.
In 1990, the EPA negotiated a landmark $69.45 million settlement for the cleanup of municipal wells G and H, the sources of the contaminated drinking water in Woburn.
According to the settlement, the parties responsible for the cleanup -- W.R. Grace & Co., UniFirst Corp., New England Plastics, Beatrice Co., Wildwood Conservation Corp. And John J. Riley, Jr. -- must decontaminate their properties, finance EPA's oversight, perform a study of the area surrounding wells G and H, and reimburse the EPA for past site investigation costs.
The conflicts and challenges played out in the movie are part of everyday life at the agency charged with protecting America's environment and public health, including drinking water.
The EPA approaches the problem of potential drinking water contamination from many angles, including the cleanup of Superfund hazardous waste sites, such as Woburn; the protection of groundwater from leaking underground petroleum storage tanks; and a new regulation that says water suppliers must provide annual reports to customers on the quality of each community's public water supply.
As of the end of 1998, the EPA's mid-Atlantic regional office provided drinking water to nearby residents at 80 Superfund sites where contaminated water was not potable.
Nationwide, drinking water wells have been shut down at about 360 Superfund sites and alternative water sources were supplied. At another 500 sites, wells located nearby are at risk, but still unaffected by contamination plumes moving through the groundwater.
For example, at the Limestone Road site in Cumberland, Allegheny County, commercial demolition debris and waste sludges were dumped continuously from 1960 through 1980, contaminating the nearby surface water with chromium, cadmium and zinc. Neighborhood residential wells were found to contain traces of manganese and nickel.
The EPA immediately ordered the responsible parties, Fairchild Industries and Cumberland Cement and Supply to regularly test residential wells and provide bottled water to residents whose water was not safe to drink. As a permanent solution, the EPA called for the installation of a public water line to the residential area affected by the site. Construction of the line began last spring and should be completed this spring.
Another source of widespread groundwater contamination is leaking underground petroleum storage tanks. Just a few drops of gasoline in an underground aquifer can taint a whole community's water supply.
An EPA rule gave tank owners 10 years to put safeguards onto their tanks to prevent leaks and spills. The 10-year deadline was up last month, and inspectors will start combing the area for tanks that are not up to snuff. If a tank owner was not willing to upgrade his tanks or install new ones, he had to shut the tanks down or remove them from the ground.
Another new EPA rule goes into effect this spring, requiring public water suppliers to include with their bills an annual water quality summary, known as a Consumer Confidence Report. This report, ordered by President Clinton, must divulge the source of the drinking water, any contaminants that may be found in the water and their potential health effects.
If you suspect that a property and/or the groundwater in your community is contaminated, you may call the Region III (Pa., De., Md., Va., W.Va., and D.C.) Emergency Response Center to report it at (215) 814-3254. For states outside Region III, call the National Emergency Response Center at (800) 424-8802.
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