More than 20 percent of U.S. water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act over the last five years. Since 2004, the water provided to more than 49 million people has contained illegal concentrations of chemicals like arsenic or radioactive substances like uranium, as well as dangerous bacteria often found in sewage.
In addition, over the last three years alone, more than 9,400 of the nation’s 25,000 sewage systems have dumped untreated or partly treated human waste, chemicals and other hazardous materials into rivers and lakes and elsewhere. But fewer than one in five sewage systems that broke the law were ever fined or otherwise sanctioned by state or federal regulators.
Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have come under fire as members of Congress demanded an explanation into reports that the agency has not enforced Safe Drinking Water Act violations. Just 6 percent of drinking water violations were actually enforced since 2004.
The enforcement chief at the EPA responded by announcing new enforcement protocols designed to determine the most serious and repeating water pollution offenders and established a new mechanism to hold violators responsible. The chairwoman of the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee, Senator Barbara Boxer, dismissed the plan as "bureaucratic rhetoric."
In some instances, drinking water violations were one-time events. But for hundreds of other systems, illegal contamination persisted for years. It is unclear precisely how many American illnesses are linked to contaminated drinking water, but as many as 20 million people each year become ill from drinking water containing bacteria and other pathogens that are often spread by untreated waste.
Certain types of cancer, such as breast and prostate cancer, have risen over the past 30 years, and research indicates they are likely tied to pollutants like those found in drinking water.