What to do when you find manmade toxic chemicals in your water system By ASHLEY CAMPBELL | Attorney at SL Environmental Law Group
Recent developments in groundwater testing and regulation have made it easier to ensure safe public drinking water for all. If harmful contaminants have been detected in your water source, it’s crucial to take action to comply with the law and protect your community from exposure to health risks. While the Environmental Protection Agency sets national standards for drinking water purity, many states have put stricter regulations in place to protect their residents against man-made contaminants such as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether and 1, 2, 3 trichloropropane. Research suggests that exposure to these contaminants can have serious health implications, including increased risk of cancer, weakened immune systems, increased cholesterol levels and potential birth defects, among others. Many of the threats posed to public drinking water today arise from the use of defective commercial products near surface and groundwater sources, or from consumer prodAshley Campbell ucts that release harmful chemicals into the water system through everyday use. Shifting the costs to those responsible Whether the source of pollution is natural or man-made, the public often has to bear the burden of funding treatment costs through rate increases. But with man-made contaminants, water utilities and their constituents are increasingly pushing for more accountability. Toxic man-made chemicals showing up in water systems is not new, but it has become more common, as municipalities are now increasing mandatory testing due to state and federal regulations. As municipalities become more aware of the man-made contaminants in their water systems, and as the public sentiment shifts toward holding corporate polluters accountable for the environmental damage, litigation is becoming a water provider’s best line of defense. The good news is municipalities are having success in seeking compensation from the manufacturers responsible. A precedence has been set, and the legal team at SL Environmental Law Group has not lost a water contamination case yet. Some recent wins include over $250 million settlement for the state of New Hampshire; $26.5 million for St. Louis, Mich.; $30 million for Clovis, Calif.; $9 million for Livingston, Calif.; and many smaller settlements that have all lifted the cost burden of water remediation from small to medium-sized utilities. 66 THE MUNICIPAL | JUNE 2021
Take action Whether your municipality is facing new maximum contaminant levels or has recently discovered the presence of a contaminant in your water system, you need to act swiftly regardless of funding. Protecting citizens and preserving your legal rights are vital. Transparency is crucial from the beginning, and keeping the public informed as you determine the next steps and decide whether or not to pursue litigation is important. Although some water utility leaders are reluctant to draw unwanted attention to harmful contamination, the Flint, Mich., crisis is a strong reminder of the repercussions of failing to be fully transparent. How and when you respond can significantly impact your ability for a successful legal outcome. Here are some critical first steps: Step 1: Engage an engineer to assess solutions Once you’ve detected a contaminant in your water supply, the first step is to investigate possible solutions. There are many ways to address, mitigate and respond to water contamination problems, including: • Water treatment. Various media can remove certain contaminants from the water supply, and novel adsorbents are being developed regularly. Treatment may need to be used in conjunction with other solutions. • Purchasing alternative water sources. This can be a costly shortterm option and may disrupt existing water treatment solutions, since the introduction of water from a new source may impact existing treatment. • Abandoning or drilling new wells. This may be the costliest of choices due to the uncertainty of finding greater water quality and potential losses in production. The cost of additional water treatment is significant but often necessary. Although you’ll have to incur upfront costs to move quickly on remediation, you can then bring legal action to recover those costs. Step 2: Determine how the contamination occurred In addition to reacting quickly on remediation, you’ll need to understand how the contamination occurred in the first place. This calls for an investigation of who was responsible and whether the impact is ongoing. This research can be time-consuming, but it’s crucial for predicting whether levels may increase over time. The more you understand the reason for contamination, the more confident you can be in your chosen solution.