Report shows taxpayers pay for pollution
By Andrew Conte, Post staff reporter
Ohio industries have polluted at least 54 public water systems - including a half-dozen in the Cincinnati region - but only three companies have been forced to pay for cleaning up the problem, according to a consumer report released today.
While state regulators have protected residents' health they are doing little to guard the wallets of taxpayers who often get stuck paying the bill, said members of Ohio Citizen Action, which co-authored the report.
''Nobody wants to pay for someone else's mess and that's exactly what they're doing every time those costs get shifted onto the consumer,'' said Rachel Belz, the group's director for southwest Ohio. ''All we're asking them is, 'If you make a mess, clean it up.' ''
Citizen Action and the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that co-sponsored the report, hopes it will goad the state into taking a tougher stance against polluters.
Although 280 Ohio communities have detected industrial solvents in their drinking water since 1994, the agency does not know of any with an ongoing violation of the federal standards for drinking water.
That may be because many communities have acted on their own to address the problem:
When Reading officials discovered industrial solvents in their city's drinking water they first tried to correct the problem and later agreed to start buying outside water from Cincinnati in 1984.
The solvents have been traced back to several companies, including General Electric's Evendale plant and Pristine Inc., regulators said.
While most of the companies settled out of court with the city, Reading taxpayers paid much of the $640,000 bill to save the system, city officials said.
Cleaning up the wells would cost more than $40 million.
Mayor Earl Schmidt still gets angry that the city had to give up its own system and that taxpayers had to pay much of the cost. But he said most of the companies acknowledged their error and agreed to defray at least some of the expense.
Middletown , a Butler County community, had to remove three of its wells from operation after massive amounts of some solvents were found in the city's drinking water.
The pollutants were traced back to a nearby printing company, which has agreed to install soil and ground water-treatment systems near the source area, according to an internal OEPA draft memo that the nonprofits released with their report.
The company, which was not identified by name, did not have to clean up the area outside its property line, however.
Residents of Seven Mile , also in Butler County, were forced to give up their city's water system when state officials noticed that a nearby gravel pit had been used for open dumping, which affected the village's aquifer.
The industrial solvent trichloroethene (TCE) was found at levels twice that of the federal standard for drinking water.
Village officials first rented a water treatment system to reduce the level of solvent, and ultimately abandoned the system to buy water from a neighboring community.
The state has spent at least $16,100 on the project, and finishing the cleanup would cost at least $3 million. OEPA does not have the funding or authority to determine who dumped the solvent or to restore the aquifer, the memo said.
Milford in Clermont County and Ripley in Brown County each still has some amount of industrial solvent in its drinking water, but the levels are below the federal standards, the report said.
They are among 26 Ohio communities with at least some industrial solvents in their drinking water.
Pressure on polluters
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency's record on punishing polluters is spotty, the report says:
The agency has taken enforcement action against companies in 18 of the pollution cases and has forced four companies to start cleaning up their mess.
The OEPA does not have clear authority to make companies cooperate in every case and it lacks enough funding for the job.
The report comes one month before water companies nationwide must start telling consumers about the industrial solvents in tap water - even trace levels.