Public Water/Private Water: Whither Clean Water?

Today’s NYTimes has a rather extensive article regarding concerns that millions of Americans may be drinking tap water contaminated with all sorts of hazardous chemicals – despite the fact that this water passes the requirements of the (seemingly far insufficient) federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The article doesn’t indicate whether private water systems are, on the whole, more hazardous than public systems, but in describing the egregious case of Maywood, CA, it does note how private systems exacerbate the already difficult process of bringing clean water to the people:

Maywood is only one square mile, but has three water systems. All are privately owned, so local officials have no real power except forcing them to follow federal and state regulations. About three-quarters of the nation’s water systems are private entities, beholden only to their shareholders and the law.

Laboratory tests show Maywood’s tap water has contained toxic levels of mercury, lead, manganese and other chemicals that have been associated with liver and kidney damage, neurological diseases or cancer.

But when Maywood’s residents asked for cleaner water, they were told what was flowing from the taps satisfied the Safe Drinking Water Act, and so the managers didn’t have to do more.

So while insufficient environmental regulation endangers the health of those reliant on both private or public water systems, the privatization of three quarters (!) of the nation’s water systems has closed off the principal avenue public recourse: pressuring elected officials. In fact:

When a city council member named Felipe Aguirre lobbied for cleaner water, anonymous leaflets arrived. “Felipe Aguirre has deceived the citizens of Maywood!” one reads. “Felipe Aguirre does not care that Maywood residents will be paying more for water already safe to drink!” another says. “Do you want this liar and corrupt politician to decide the future of Maywood and its residents?”

If water is a “private” resource, then the owners of that resource can openly declare that profit, not safety, is the bottom line – so long as they are working within the constraints of the law.

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