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  • Customers pay tab to clean polluted water, report says

    Monday, September 13, 1999

    By Joe Hoover
    Dispatch Staff Reporter

    Chemicals from Ohio industries are fouling public water supplies in dozens of communities, and the water customers are footing the cleanup bill, says a report released today by two environmental groups.

    At least 54 public water systems have been investigated by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency after chemicals from local industries polluted the ground-water supply, according to the study released by Ohio Citizen Action and the Environmental Working Group.

    None of the water systems is in Franklin County.

    Contaminants dumped or inadvertently leaked by a business or industry seep into the ground and eventually enter the water supply.

    Communities are paying millions to clean the contaminated water because the EPA has required the polluters to pay for cleanups in just three cases, said Sandy Buchanan, executive director of Ohio Citizen Action.

    "The state has sent a signal to industry that pollution is acceptable,'' Buchanan said. "There isn't an environmental cop on the beat in Ohio.''

    An EPA spokeswoman said the agency views the report with skepticism because much of the information came from an unfinished EPA report.

    Ohio has 2,552 water systems, and all produce safe drinking water, the spokeswoman said.

    Buchanan said the problem isn't being blown out of proportion. She pointed to the report's finding that more than 280 Ohio communities have reported industrial contaminants in their water since 1994.

    Suppliers are treating the water so that contamination levels remain below legal limits, according to the EPA. But the report found that water in 26 communities -- mostly along the Ohio River and in southwest Ohio -- have traces of industrial solvents believed to cause leukemia, cancer and birth defects.

    "A lot of legally allowable limits aren't safe,'' Buchanan said. "I don't think people want any of these chemicals in their water.''

    The report places much of the blame for water-supply contamination on the EPA for not forcing polluters to pay for cleanups.

    State law gives the EPA authority to investigate hazardous-waste sites that threaten to pollute water supplies and the EPA director authority to file a civil suit to recover cleanup costs from the polluter, the report says.

    But the EPA prefers to negotiate with companies over cleanup terms, and if the company refuses, the EPA almost never pursues legal action, Buchanan said.

    Often, the polluting company continues to operate in the area it contaminated while the community pays to remove the contaminants, she said.

    Dayton recently spent $4 million for treatment equipment to reduce levels of vinyl chloride in the city's water supply and didn't receive any money from the cluster of industries that the EPA identified as the source of the pollution, according to the report.

    "Many cities don't have the money to clean this, and it's even worse in some of the smaller rural communities,'' Buchanan said.

    One community with water troubles is West Lafayette, a village about 75 miles east of Columbus.

    The EPA found cancer-causing chemicals in the village's water in 1994, but money was not available to build or operate a $500,000 treatment plant. A milk-can manufacturer that dumped industrial solvents on the property closed in the late 1970s.

    So the village's 2,200 residents came up with $1.5 million for treatment equipment, Mayor Jack Patterson said.

    It wasn't fair for the village to be stuck with the bill, Patterson said. But he doesn't agree with Ohio Citizen Action's argument that the EPA deserves blame.

    The EPA "did the best they could with the funds they had,'' he said. "But in a situation like this, the state should step in and pay for the cleanup.''

    At least one state legislator agrees.

    Sen. James E. Carnes, R-St. Clairsville, represents West Lafayette and is chairman of the Energy, Natural Resources and Environment Committee.

    He refused to criticize the EPA's efforts, saying that the state deserves blame for polluted water supplies.

    "We all need improvement, from the EPA to the legislature,'' Carnes said. "The state needs to give more money to cleanup efforts, and communities need to make clean water a higher priority.''

    Carnes agreed with the report's recommendation that the state put money into a fund that would clean sites where the polluters have gone out of business or can't be identified. The idea could get legislative support, he said.

    "This is something we need to address, because a lot of our communities are suffering,'' he said.


    Copyright © 1999, The Columbus Dispatch