PBS News Hour Weekend recently interviewed environmental lawyer, Erin Brockovich of Pacific Gas and Electric/Chromium VI litigation fame. Ms. Brockovich was discussing her new book, “Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis And What We The People Can Do About It.”

Hyper-Toxic Times

Ms. Brockovich pointing to the highly publicized lead in drinking water in Flint said, “There are two-hundred more Flint Michigans out there.”

In an earlier interview on PBS, Ms. Brockovich said, “We are living in a hyper-toxic time. We aren’t just dealing with the toxins themselves, but the fact that they have accumulated in the environment for long stretches of time. American children are growing up exposed to more chemicals than any other generation in history and it shows. Rates of chronic disease for children, especially those living in poverty, are on the rise. Nearly half of U.S. adults (or 117 million people) are living with one or more chronic health conditions.”

A Cleaner Environment

But does this contradict data from the US Environmental Protection Agency and others? For example, the EPA states “From 1970 to 2017, aggregate national emissions of the six common pollutants alone dropped an average of 73 percent while gross domestic product grew by 324 percent.”

In a 2019 published study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, they conclude in part, “We find that by most measures, U.S. water pollution has declined since 1972, though some evidence suggests it may have declined at a faster rate before 1972. The share of waters that are fishable has grown by 12 percentage points since the Clean Water Act.” One of the original goals of the Clean Water Act in 1972 was to make waters fishable and swimmable.

There are other environmental optimists such as Bjorn Lomborg that take a very different view on environmental issues. While Lomborg focuses on climate issues he said, “In the United States, the most important environmental indicator, particulate air pollution, has been cut by more than half since 1955, rivers and coastal waters have dramatically improved, and forests are increasing.” In my own writings in the past, I have focused on celebrating environmental advancements.

So what best describes the current state of our environment?

Environmental Regulatory Framework

We do have cleaner air and water thanks in part to increased knowledge and the advent of environmental laws and subsequent regulations in the 1970s and 1980s. The Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, The Safe Drinking Water Act, The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (Superfund), The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act – all played a significant role in establishing standards that has led to an environment that is far cleaner than it was in past generations.

Environmental Challenges

That does not negate some of the challenges we have. We have written many times about the aging infrastructure that has been neglected for decades. We have old water service pipes that are undoubtedly causing elevated lead levels in many communities. Old combined sewer overflows are responsible for sewage dumps into jurisdictional waters following heavy rain events.

Superman logo

Ms. Brockovich says, “Superman is not coming” – so what can be done expedite environmental remedies (Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash)?

Slow Pace of Clean Ups

Another challenge is addressing sites of known contamination – Superfund, Formerly Used Defense Sites, and other abandoned sites. These are typically government-led cleanups and are often piecemealed; meaning they are only allocated so much money each budget cycle. This can lead to a focus on the budget to the exclusion of solving the problem.   One potential solution for these projects may be to do what one of our clients did. The groundwater contamination in their community (from a Formerly Used Defense Site) was being addressed, but painfully slow. Our clients sued to get the funding and take over the cleanup. The results were rather remarkable (video and recent press release).

PFAS and Emerging Contaminants

Another complicating factor is the issue of emerging contaminants. Collectively, we address known contaminants with established cleanup criteria, but when new data emerges that indicate an unregulated chemical may pose human health and environmental risks, it can present new challenges.

We have seen that recently with per and poly-flouoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Products and processes have used PFAS dating back to the 1940s, but only in the relative recent past did we discover they posed a risk. Compounding the concern with PFAS is their ubiquitous presence, the stable nature of these chemicals, and that we still don’t have federal maximum contaminant levels.

Taking Charge of Environmental Cleanups

Part of the title in Erin Brockovich’s book, is Superman’s not coming. I don’t disagree with that sentiment. If you are concerned about an issue of contamination in your community, you should not necessarily expect someone from a government agency to have the same passion and concern about the issue as you and your community might have. Just as our clients in Salina, Kansas did, you have to take the lead and “make things happen.”

Bureaucratic issues aside, there is an enormous amount of technical complexity that goes into defensible subsurface investigations. We often review work that falls far short of the mark in properly characterizing a site. Consequently, remedies (remediation) take too long or remain elusive.

We have a series of nine pre-recorded webinars that go into great detail on subsurface investigations. You can view this series on our YouTube Channel Understanding Groundwater Contamination.

If you have questions or need assistance with an environmental issue, contact our senior vice president, Jeffrey Bolin, M.S., CHMM at 248-932-0228, Ext. 125.

Sign up for our monthly environmental newsletters.

Principled Foundation  |  Thoughtful Advice  |  Smart Solutions