Industrial waste pollutes America’s drinking water

PHOENIX – In Ringwood, New Jersey, Ford Motor Co. dumped more than 35,000 tons of toxic paint sludge onto lands occupied for centuries by the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape tribe, poisoning groundwater with arsenic, lead and other harmful chemicals.

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This report is part of the “Troubled Water” project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project. For the complete “Troubled Water” project, visit troubledwater.news21.com.

Today, more than 43 years after the dumping ended, those toxins are still in the groundwater and threaten a reservoir providing drinking water to millions of residents of New Jersey.

In Picher, Oklahoma, decades of lead and zinc mining left residents with an aquifer contaminated with lead and heavy metals. The flow of polluted mine water into streams, lakes and a large groundwater aquifer still poses a threat to drinking water for nearby communities nearly 60 years after mining stopped.

In North Carolina, the state has told residents living near coal-fired power plants their water contains elevated levels of chromium-6 and other chemicals. While environmentalists, state government and utilities investigate the source of contamination, nearly 1,000 households rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth.

“If we don’t have water, we cannot live. So when you have companies coming into your neck of the woods, contaminating your water, what are we going to do?” said Tracey Edwards of Walnut Cove, North Carolina. “What are we going to do? We can’t live like that.”

While manufacturing, mining and waste disposal companies — and dozens of others — provide millions of jobs, products and services to Americans, these industries are also among the country’s worst water polluters, based on a News21 analysis of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, Discharge Monitoring Reports and Superfund data.

Hundreds of these companies have been contaminating drinking water throughout the country for decades with everything from arsenic and lead, to mercury and chromium – most coming from improper dumping and waste disposal, according to EPA data.

For example, Anaconda Aluminum in Montana produced manufacturing wastes that contaminated local water sources with lead and chromium, Gulf States Utilities in Louisiana discharged toxins into marshlands polluting waters with benzene and other chemicals, and the Conklin Dumps in New York leaked volatile organic chemicals into groundwater.

The EPA regulates 94 chemicals in drinking water sources but doesn’t set standards for many others that could potentially be dangerous. A News21 analysis of EPA data shows that the drinking water of more than 244 million people contains contaminants that can be linked back to industrial practices and are not currently regulated.

“They tell you one time to not drink your water, another time that it’s OK to drink your water,” said Laura Tench of Belmont, North Carolina. “Common sense tells you this is not right, we’re not being told the truth.”

It can take years, sometimes decades, to clean chemicals from polluted water, EPA records show.

“I want my family to breathe some fresh air and drink some good water,” said Vivian Milligan, a resident of Ringwood, New Jersey. “I want to see our future generations have the time to grow up and not have to deal with young kids dying and sicknesses and illnesses.”

Mining and smelting operations are responsible for contaminating water with heavy metals in almost every state in the nation. In northeast Oklahoma, where mountains of mining waste mark the landscape, the Tar Creek area near Picher is among the most contaminated places in the country. Decades of lead and zinc mining left a 40-square-mile area littered with piles of chat, mining remnants contaminated with lead and other heavy metals.

Mine waste

Tim Kent, environmental director of the Quapaw tribe, climbs to the top of a pile of mine waste in Picher, Okla. Chat piles litter the landscape there, and Kent said cleanup could take another hundred years at the current rate. (Jasmine Spearing-Bowen/News21)

When the mines shut down in the 1970s, the effects of the pollution were so devastating that residents of four towns had to be relocated.

“The water was so contaminated it just came out solid red from the iron and stuff in the water,” said John Frazier, a former Picher, Oklahoma, resident. “If you go down to Tar Creek now, you seen that? That’s what the water looked like, our drinking water.”

Water from a shallow aquifer began to run red with contaminants, first into a small waterway called Tar Creek and then out into surrounding streams and lakes that provide drinking water to communities in the area.

“Tar Creek runs through Picher, Cardin, Commerce and then hits Miami before it runs into the Neosho River and on into the Grand Lake,” said Rebecca Jim, an environmental advocate. “I am a member of the Cherokee nation and that lake is my drinking water.”

The EPA designated the area as a Superfund site and tried for nearly a decade to clean up contamination after high levels of lead were found in the blood of local children. After several land cave-ins at heavily mined areas, many residents in Picher and several other towns moved out with assistance from the EPA.

Tim Kent, the environmental director for the Quapaw tribe, said the EPA tried to address the water contamination in the 1980s but “it was largely a failure.”

“If it gets cleaned up, it’ll have to do it on its own and that will take 1,000 years,” Kent said. “EPA issued what they called a fund-waiver balance, which means this problem is so big, the groundwater, that it would break Superfund. So we cannot fix it.”

The EPA did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Tar Creek.

Mining Waste

Quapaw tribe Environmental Director Tim Kent holds some of the mining waste that litters the Picher, Okla., area. It contains lead and other heavy metals. (Jasmine Spearing-Bowen/News21)

After disasters such as the 1978 Love Canal incident, when toxic waste bubbled up into a residential area in New York state, the dangers of industrial contamination became a national concern. In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as the Superfund program, to try to clean up widespread contamination.

The Superfund helps pay for cleanup when the companies responsible for the pollution won’t admit fault or can’t afford cleanup.

“Love Canal, there was mostly chemical companies around there, they were dumping these wastes into landfills around the Buffalo area,” said Franklin Schwartz, a hydrogeologist at Ohio State University. “People started seeing these contaminants turn up everywhere, and then people realized how hazardous this was.”

News21 analyzed every Superfund listing and found more than 1,700 proposed, current or former sites where industrial contamination reached ground or surface water. The EPA continues to monitor more than 90 percent of these sites to ensure the health of people and the environment.

A 2013 study by the National Research Council attempted to determine the total number of sites in the country with groundwater pollution related to industry. By looking at Superfund and other monitoring programs such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the report documented a conservative estimate of more than 126,000 sites.

“It’s probably higher than that. … 126,000 is a number that is probably low,” said Michael Kavanaugh, one of the study’s authors.

Globe, Arizona, began as a copper-mining town more than a century ago. Groundwater pollution in the area dates back to the 1930s, and contaminants like iron, copper and lead were discovered in private wells almost 50 years ago.

Ben Foster Jesse Henderson

Ben Foster (left) and Jesse Henderson are lifelong residents of Globe, Ariz., and said the mine spill that contaminated Pinal Creek also contaminated residents’ well water. (Michael M. Santiago/News21)

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality placed the area on its list of contaminated sites in 1998. Treatment of contaminated groundwater has been ongoing since 1999 and is expected to continue for decades, according to the department.

Jesse Henderson, a Wheatfields resident who worked in the mines for 19 years, called the water in the area “just terrible.”

“Here, Globe, Claypool, Miami,” Henderson said, “I mean, people drink it and stuff. I still drink it every now and then but it can make you sick.”

Across the country, in Albany, Georgia, three separate areas of groundwater are polluted with cyanide and chloroform from various industries. One of the contaminated areas came from a landfill on the Marine Corps’ Logistics Base. The U.S. Navy has taken responsibility for the base and is providing residents in the majority African-American town with an alternative water supply due to the health risks associated with the pollution.

Politicians and researchers say industrial sites are more likely to be located near low-income and minority communities.

“More heavily polluting industries were located near communities of color or minority communities or poor communities because they didn’t have the political clout to fight back and say, ‘We don’t want that here,’” said Christine Whitman, former head of the EPA. “These are people who don’t have any choices in where they can go.”

Robin Saha, a researcher at the University of Montana, co-authored “Which Came First, People or Pollution?” to examine environmental inequality around industrial sites. The 2015 report, published in the science journal Environmental Research Letters, found a pattern of industrial polluters being located in low-income and minority communities across the country.

Industries have learned to avoid conflicts with communities that have the resources to resist, Saha said.

“It may be because of our racially segregated housing patterns,” he said. “Those poor communities of color are easier to target. Because of housing discrimination, African-Americans and Latinos are not able to move as freely. They may not be able to get loans, move or even want to because of discrimination in housing.”

Income and race both play a factor, but the majority of studies show that race tends to be a more important and significant factor of where these polluters decide to establish themselves, Saha said.

Vivian Milligan

Vivian Milligan lives just feet away from the Ringwood Mines and Landfill Superfund site in Ringwood, N.J. Ford Motor Co. dumped toxic paint sludge nearby, which eventually contaminated the drinking water near her home. (Karl Schneider/News21)

“This is real; we are human beings and this is really happening,” said Vivian Milligan of the Ramapough Lenape tribe in Ringwood. “We’re back here in these mountains and people tend to feel like, ‘Let them stay there, back in the corner and die off.’ But that’s not my plan. My plans are to stand up and try to get things done right.”

The borough of Ringwood, New Jersey, is home to about 12,000 people, including the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough tribe. Nestled in the northern highlands of the state, the borough surrounds the Wanaque Reservoir, a source of drinking water for millions of people.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Ford Motor Co. dumped toxic paint sludge into abandoned mine shafts it purchased from the borough. Because of lead and arsenic in the soil and groundwater, the EPA began monitoring the site in 1983. Today, contaminants from the site pose a risk to the nearby reservoir, according to a May 2017 environmental report.

”It’s certainly beholden upon Ford, who is the polluter here, and Andy Hobbs, who is supposedly the director of environmental quality for Ford, to do what they said they’re going to do and clean up this site,” said Bob Spiegel, who runs Edison Wetlands Association.

While Ford has removed some of the paint sludge, more remains. When called for comment, Ford Director of Environmental Quality Andy Hobbs said, “I do not take calls from reporters.”

The nonprofit Edison Wetlands Association conducts its own water testing throughout the state as part of its advocacy efforts. It recently found new contaminants in the Ringwood mines, causing additional concerns about the quality of water at the reservoir.

Water testing

Bob Spiegel and Shannon Lisa of the Edison Wetlands Association test the waters coming from the Ringwood Mines and Landfill Superfund site in New Jersey. They are worried toxic chemicals may reach a reservoir serving millions of people. (Karl Schneider/News21)

“For the first time, they are concerned about 1,4-Dioxane (an industrial solvent) in the water because it’s being found in the surface water that’s entering the Wanaque reservoir and they have no viable way to treat the drinking water for 1,4-Dioxane,” Spiegel said.

While illegal dumping can occur, the EPA monitors most industrial chemical releases into water sources through a permitting program.

Between 2011 and 2015, companies dumped more than 14 billion pounds over permitted limits, according to a News21 analysis. Numbers are based on a calculation the EPA uses to compare the harmfulness of each chemical released.

Dioxins, byproducts of incineration, are among the most released chemicals. They are known carcinogens, and exposure has been linked to health effects such as heart disease, diabetes and reproductive issues. Almost every living creature on Earth has been exposed to dioxins, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Chemical companies released the most contaminants of all industries, according to EPA documents. Utilities, plastics and rubber manufacturers, mining companies, and petroleum and coal producers round out the top five.

The now-defunct Diamond Alkali Co. in Newark, New Jersey, manufactured chemicals including those used to make Agent Orange. EPA investigations found that the chemicals produced at the company polluted the Passaic River, a drinking water source for millions of New Jersey residents.

The Ohio River borders six states and provides drinking water to nearly 3 million people. Since 1987, various industries have dumped about 600 million pounds of toxic substances, including ammonia and nitrates into the river, according to EPA data.

Most people in the U.S. get their drinking water from surface water, including rivers and lakes, that is treated by public water systems before it’s used. However, 15 percent of Americans consume untreated groundwater from private wells, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Pinal Creek wells

Ben Foster (left) and Jesse Henderson are lifelong residents of Globe, Ariz., and said the mine spill that contaminated Pinal Creek also contaminated residents’ well water. (Michael M. Santiago/News21)

Because there is no EPA oversight of private wells, it’s possible for contaminants to leak into well water without the homeowners’ knowledge.

Chemicals like arsenic and boron were found in private wells in the town of Pines, Indiana, after coal ash from a nearby Northern Indiana Public Service Corp. (NIPSCO) coal-fired power plant polluted groundwater.

Cathi Murray, president of a local advocacy group, said some residents were hooked up to municipal water after the contamination was discovered, but others were not. NIPSCO has been providing bottled water to residents since 2001, according to Murray.

“For our town, the coal ash pollution will never go away because it’s in a partially unlined landfill that sits in a swamp that is attached to our aquifer,” she said. “There will always be groundwater contamination from the coal ash in this area.”

Coal ash, a byproduct of coal burning, is often stored in large pits in the ground called impoundments. According to the EPA, more than 1,000 of these impoundments can be found in communities across the country.

In North Carolina, the state department of environmental quality sent letters in 2015 to residents living near coal-fired power plants telling them their private well water had high levels of contaminants such as chromium-6 and was unsafe to use for drinking or cooking. More than 900 of these households have been relying on bottled water for more than two years.

Debbie Baker, a Belmont resident, also received a personal call from state toxicologist Kenneth Rudo. He advised her not to use her well water, and told her he “wouldn’t even give my dogs or animals this water.”

“Vanadium, hexavalent chromium … and that’s when I was like, I knew that this coal ash was not good,” Baker said.

Debbie Baker

Debbie Baker sits in front of her Belmont, N.C., home. She has been an outspoken advocate against coal ash since contaminants were found in her water since 2015. (Jasmine Spearing-Bowen/News21)

Residents were later told their water was safe to drink based on the state standard for total chromium, but many still are unconvinced.

Neither the state nor the EPA sets specific standards for chromium-6, but it is known to cause cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health. From 2013 to 2015, the EPA reported more than 234 million people had higher levels of the chemical in their water than the agency recommends.

Baker and her husband, Jack, moved into their home near a Duke Energy steam station 21 years ago. She believes the water contamination is coming from coal ash buried near the power plant, though Debra Watts, from the North Carolina Division of Water Resources, said they are still working to determine the source of the chemicals.

Duke Energy has been providing bottled water to residents living near its power plants for over two years, but company spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the contaminants are not coming from coal ash.

“It is tough when you’ve got developing science,” said Cathy Cralle Jones, an attorney representing some residents. “As an environmental lawyer I can tell you, I run into this a lot of times, when you see what looks to be a cause and effect and you feel in your heart of hearts that there is one, that this exposure is causing this result, but the science hasn’t caught up.”

After a string of hospitalizations for respiratory-related illnesses, Baker’s husband, Jack, was diagnosed with a lung disease that doctors said could have been caused by his environment. He died in June 2008. Now, Baker wakes up alone, walks to the kitchen, and grabs a bottle of Dasani from one of the many cases stacked around her home to make her coffee.

“I always thought maybe it had something to do with the coal ash ponds,” said Baker. “I started doing my research. … I’ll be honest with you, I think the coal ash killed my husband.”

Her husband’s death prompted Baker to become an activist. She said she wants Duke to dispose of its waste properly, but she still understands the value the utility company provides.

Debbie Baker

Debbie Baker prepares food in the kitchen of her Belmont, N.C., home. She uses bottled water to drink and cook with. (Chelsea Rae Ybanez/News21)

“I don’t hate them. They give me my electricity, I thank them for that,” she said. “They keep my room cool, keep us warm in the wintertime – I just want them to do what is right.”

Researcher Robin Saha said the benefits industries provide like jobs and economic growth are important, but communities may not be aware of the tradeoffs they are making.

“(Companies) may be donating to the school, or they may be buying a new gym, and it’s kind of like they are paying people off to kill them, in a sense,” said Saha. “So you are accepting these things at what cost?”

EPA regulations were set up to keep people safe from industrial pollution reaching their drinking water, but Saha claims there is “a failure of federal and state policy.”
“Many of these types of facilities should not be located where there’s a lot of people: near schools, near hospitals, near nursing homes, where there’s elderly and more often than not, they are,” Saha said.

Industries will develop where there is a “path of least resistance,” Saha said, but it’s up to community members to work together to dictate what kind of companies set up shop in their neighborhood.

“We’ll extinguish our own … the entire human race if we’re not careful,” said Tracey Edwards, an advocate from Walnut Cove who wants coal ash removed. “Somebody has to do something and it can’t always be about somebody earning a dollar. We have to preserve humanity.”

News21 reporters Claire Caulfield and Bryan Anderson contributed to this report.

This report is part of the “Troubled Water” project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. For the complete “Troubled Water” project, visit troubledwater.news21.com.