Most of New York State’s drinking water comes from right here in the Catskills, and it is renowned for its taste and purity. Our water is simply amazing, and we need to protect it for all of us who live here, and the 19 million people in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania who rely on water from our Delaware and Catskill watersheds. Our Catskill water is so pure, it reaches the taps of New York City unfiltered. Sadly, for the most part, we take it for granted that its purity and supply is being protected with vigilance by governmental regulatory agencies. The truth is that we should be much more watchful and cautious in making sure our water supply is protected.
Case in point: There’s an ongoing environmental disaster involving the water supply of hundreds of thousands of residents in West Virginia (WV). Earlier this month, over 7,500 gallons of a clear, licorice-smelling chemical used to process coal leaked from an old storage tank and spilled into the Elk River. The accident took place near the largest water treatment plant in the state. Over 300,000 residents were ordered not to drink the tap water. That chemical, Crude MCHM, which is primarily composed of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, is very toxic, and there were immediate reports of rashes, stomach aches and other ailments.
After 10 days, restrictions on using tap water were lifted for most of those affected by the disaster, even though the licorice smell remained. Pregnant women are still being advised not to drink the water, while Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin emphasized that tests indicated the water is safe under guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. He was not too reassuring when he told residents: “If you do not feel comfortable drinking or cooking in this water, then use bottled water....”
Now, serious questions are being raised as to why there’s so little regulation of the storage of these chemicals, and even worse, why there’s so little knowledge by the federal government and the medical field about the potential toxicity of chemicals like the one spilled into the Elk River.
What stands out the most from the West Virginia spill is how the federal and state governments throughout the nation fail to monitor chemicals and their use in terms of protecting our water supplies. A recent article in the Washington Post’s Health and Science section stated that “It has been 38 years since Congress passed a major piece of legislation regulating toxic chemicals, even though there is no disagreement that the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA, or Tosca) needs an overhaul” and that “Chemicals in the United States are generally treated as innocent until proven guilty. A company does not have to prove that a chemical does not pose a health hazard in order to introduce it in the commercial market.”
Much like West Virginia, our state is way too lax in regulating chemicals. Here in New York State, the controversy surrounding fracking already highlights the dangerous nature of chemicals used and released in the fracking process, In fact, several of the chemicals identified in the West Virginia spill are manufactured for fracking operations. In a report issued by Environmental Advocates in May 2012, a dire warning was issued about the lack of regulation of the oil and drilling process and the flawed exemption of chemicals from being deemed hazardous waste: “Existing state laws and regulations do not require oil and gas companies to report with any specificity how much waste is being created, its chemical components, or how drilling waste is being disposed. We also discovered that much of fracking’s waste would likely be classified as hazardous waste if it were not exempt under flawed state regulations.”
In upstate New York, it’s not just about potential fracking here in the Catskills, but about a broader, rudimentary need to protect our water supply from chemicals on a day-to-day basis. Right now, our water supply is woefully under-regulated in terms of chemical storage and transportation, and with the boom going on right now in transmission pipes servicing the needs of the oil and gas industries in neighboring states, updated studies and regulations should be mandated immediately.
[Ramsay Adams is the founder and executive director of Catskill Mountainkeeper.]