This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.
PHOENIX – In Ringwood, New Jersey, Ford Motor Co. dumped more than 35,000 tons of toxic paint sludge onto lands occupied for centuries by the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape tribe, poisoning groundwater with arsenic, lead and other harmful chemicals.
Today, more than 43 years after the dumping ended, those toxins are still in the groundwater and threaten a reservoir providing drinking water to millions of residents of New Jersey.
In Picher, Oklahoma, decades of lead and zinc mining left residents with an aquifer contaminated with lead and heavy metals. The flow of polluted mine water into streams, lakes and a large groundwater aquifer still poses a threat to drinking water for nearby communities nearly 60 years after mining stopped.
In North Carolina, the state has told residents living near coal-fired power plants their water contains elevated levels of chromium-6 and other chemicals. While environmentalists, state government and utilities investigate the source of contamination, nearly 1,000 households rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth.
“If we don't have water, we cannot live. So when you have companies coming into your neck of the woods, contaminating your water, what are we going to do?” said Tracey Edwards of Walnut Cove, North Carolina. “What are we going to do? We can't live like that.”
While manufacturing, mining and waste disposal companies — and dozens of others — provide millions of jobs, products and services to Americans, these industries are also among the country’s worst water polluters, based on a News21 analysis of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, Discharge Monitoring Reports and Superfund data.
Hundreds of these companies have been contaminating drinking water throughout the country for decades with everything from arsenic and lead, to mercury and chromium – most coming from improper dumping and waste disposal, according to EPA data.
For example, Anaconda Aluminum in Montana produced manufacturing wastes that contaminated local water sources with lead and chromium, Gulf States Utilities in Louisiana discharged toxins into marshlands polluting waters with benzene and other chemicals, and the Conklin Dumps in New York leaked volatile organic chemicals into groundwater.
The EPA regulates 94 chemicals in drinking water sources but doesn’t set standards for many others that could potentially be dangerous. A News21 analysis of EPA data shows that the drinking water of more than 244 million people contains contaminants that can be linked back to industrial practices and are not currently regulated.
“They tell you one time to not drink your water, another time that it’s OK to drink your water,” said Laura Tench of Belmont, North Carolina. “Common sense tells you this is not right, we're not being told the truth.”
It can take years, sometimes decades, to clean chemicals from polluted water, EPA records show.
“I want my family to breathe some fresh air and drink some good water,” said Vivian Milligan, a resident of Ringwood, New Jersey. “I want to see our future generations have the time to grow up and not have to deal with young kids dying and sicknesses and illnesses.”