The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to crack down on polluters in an effort to keep our water and air clean. The catastrophic water pollution problem in Flint, Michigan provides one glimpse at how bad things can get when the EPA and others fall down on the job.
So how often does that happen? We examined the EPA's record, and you might be surprised by what we found. For example, a former operating site for Texas Instruments in Attleboro, Massachusetts, has been out of compliance with federal water pollution laws for the past three years. A long list of chemicals linked to health problems have been discharging into nearby brooks, according to data from the EPA. The discharges have been hundreds of times the permitted limits.
What's happening in Massachusetts reflects a national problem. A recent check of the EPA website found that 74 percent of what the EPA classifies as major facilities across the country are not in compliance with the Clean Water Act. In many cases, those violations have persisted for years.
"Not only is there a deficit in terms of enforcement and inspections and actual bodies to look at the reports that identify violations, there's also an incredible backlog in permits," said Brad Campbell with the Conservation Law Foundation.
The failure to crackdown on polluters is reflected in dollars and cents. The EPA can levy fines of up to tens of thousand of dollars a day. However, total EPA fines have plummeted $60 million in 2012 down to $10 million in 2015.
"There are so few enforcements happening in these water pollution cases that companies don't want to pay the money to be in compliance. It's less expensive for them to operate outside the law then the risk they calculate to face enforcement," said Becky Smith with Clean Water Action.
Unchecked pollution in our waters is not just coming from private companies. In some states, the culprits are municipal treatment facilities that are supposed to clean up water before it ends up in major waterways. In Massachusetts, for example, the EPA has cited 13 municipal wastewater treatment plants for violations of the Clean Water Act and dozens more are out of compliance.
Smith added: "Citizens should have faith that, should be able to have faith, that their government is protecting their drinking water."
The EPA defends its record saying it's working with the most serious violators to clean up their sites, but the agency concedes that budget cutbacks are making its job more difficult. As for that Texas Instruments plant, the company says it's installing a groundwater treatment system to address pollution problems.
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