What's in Your Water? Nuclear Waste, Coal Slurries and Industrial Estrogen

Friday, 19 November 2010 11:10 By Sarah Laskow, The Media Consortium | News Analysis | name.

It won't be long before the world has to confront its diminishing supply of clean water.

"We've had the same amount of water on our planet since the beginning of time, " Susan Leal, co-author of Running Out of Water, told GritTV's Laura Flanders. "We are on a collision course of a very finite supply and 7.6 billion people."

What's worse, private industries—and energy companies in particular—are using waterways as dumping grounds for hazardous substances. With the coal industry, it's an old story; with the natural gas industry, it's a practice that can be nipped in the bud.

In many cases, dumping pollutants into water is a government-sanctioned activity, although there are limits to how much contamination can be approved. But companies often overshoot their pollution allowances, and for some businesses, like a nuclear energy plant, even a little bit of contamination can be a problem.

Business As Usual

Here's one troubling scenario. At Grist, Sue Sturgis reports that "a river downstream of a privately-owned nuclear fuel processing plant in East Tennessee is contaminated with enriched uranium." The concentrations are low, and the water affected is still potable. The issue, however, is that the plant was not supposed to be discharging any of this sort of uranium at all. One researcher explained that the study had "only scratched the surface of what's out there and found widely dispersed enriched uranium in the environment." In other words, the contamination could be more widespread than is now known.

Nuclear energy facilities must take particular care to keep the waste products of their work separate from the environment around them. But in some industries, like coal, polluting water supplies is routine practice.

The Dirtiest Energy

In West Virginia, more than 700 people are suing infamous coal company Massey Energy for defiling their tap water, Charles Corra reports at Change.org. In Mingo County, tap water comes out as "a smooth flow of black and orange liquid." Country residents are arguing that the contamination is a result of water from coal slurries, a byproduct of mining that contains arsenic and other contaminants, leaking into the water table. Residents believe the slurries also cause health problems like learning disabilities and hormone imbalances, as Corra reports.

Newfangled notions

Even so-called "clean coal," which would inject less carbon into the atmosphere, is worrisome when it comes to water. The carbon siphoned from clean coal doesn't disappear; it's sequestered under ground. For a new clean coal project in Linden, NJ, Change.org's Austin Billings reports, that chamber would be 70 miles out to sea. As Billings writes:

The plant would be the first of its kind in the world, so it should come as no surprise that the proposal is a major cause for concern among New Jersey environmentalists, fishermen, and lawmakers. According to Dr. Heather Saffert of Clean Ocean America, “We don’t really have a good understanding of how the CO2 is going to react with other minerals… The PurGen project is based on one company’s models. What if they’re wrong?”

In this case, it wouldn't only be human communities at risk ("Polluted Jersey Shore," anyone?), but the ocean's ecosystem.

Frack No!

Coal communities in West Virginia have been dealing with water pollution for decades. But a another source of energy extraction—hydrofracking for natural gas—has only just begun to threaten water supplies. Care2's Jennifer Mueller points to a recent "60 Minutes" segment that explores the attendant issues: it's a must-watch for anyone unfamiliar with what's at stake.

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Fortunately, some of the communities at risk have been working to head off the damage before it hits. In Pittsburgh this week, leaders banned hydrofracking within the city, according to Mari Margil and Ben Price in Yes! Magazine. They write:

As Councilman [Doug] Shields stated after the vote, “This ordinance recognizes and secures expanded civil rights for the people of Pittsburgh, and it prohibits activities which would violate those rights. It protects the authority of the people of Pittsburgh to pass this ordinance by undoing corporate privileges that place the rights of the people of Pittsburgh at the mercy of gas corporations.”

Environmentalists in other municipalities, in state government, and in Congress would do well to follow Pittsburgh's lead.

Mutant fish

Of course, you can't believe every tale of water contamination you hear. At RhRealityCheck, Kimberly Inez McGuire takes on the persistent myth that estrogen from birth control is making its way in large concentrations into the water supply and leading to mutations in fish.

This simply isn't true. As McGuire explains, "The estrogen found in birth control pills, patches, and rings (known as EE2) is only one of thousands of synthetic estrogens that may be found in our water, and the contribution of EE2 to the total presence of estrogen in water is relatively small." Where does the rest of the estrogen come from? Factory farms, industrial chemicals like BPA, and synthetic estrogen used in crop fertilizer. So, yes, the water is contaminated, but, no, your birth control is not to blame.

Greening the US

Stories like these, of environmental pollution by corporations, seem to come up again and again. They're barely news anymore and so easy to ignore. But it's more important than ever for environmentalists to fight back against these challenges and push for a green economy that minimizes pollution. The American Prospect's Monica Potts recently sat down with The Media Consortium to explain the roadblocks to a green economy. If green-minded people want to stop hearing tales like the ones above, these are the obstacles they'll need to overcome. Watch the video:

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Last modified on Friday, 19 November 2010 11:10