Stirring Dark Waters: Press Attention on Recent Water Quality Report May Lead to Additional Investigations and Enforcement
Attention has once again been focused on the industrial pollution of the lakes, rivers, and streams in Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi through the publication of a recent report by a federation of environmental advocacy organizations entitled Wasting Our Waterways: Industrial Toxic Pollution and the Unfulfilled Promise of the Clean Water Act. The study purports to document and analyze the levels of pollutants discharged to America’s waters through the chemical releases reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory for 2010, the most recent data available.
With the resulting press attention to this report, can additional investigation and enforcement against the implicated industries be far behind?
For example, the report ranks Alabama eighth-worst in the nation for toxic chemical releases into waterways, and highlights the toxic nature of such chemicals (arsenic, mercury, chromium, nitrates, and benzene) by citing linkage to cancer and reproductive and developmental disorders. The report found that roughly 9.9 million pounds of toxic chemicals were dumped into Alabama lakes, rivers, and streams. The state’s waters also ranked third-worst in the nation for the release of cancer-causing chemicals into waterways, seventh-worst for the release of substances with the potential to cause reproductive problems, and ninth-worst in the release of toxic chemicals linked to developmental disorders.
Mississippi ranks 14th for total toxic releases, due in large part to discharges to the Mississippi River.
Tennessee fared better, but with 2.8 million pounds of toxic releases, still ranked 22nd for most toxic releases by state. Moreover, Tennessee’s waterways came in at 11th-worst for cancer-causing chemicals and 10th-worst for developmental and reproductive toxicants.
According to the report, the most polluted rivers in Tennessee and Alabama are the Mississippi River, the Tennessee River, the Alabama River, Graves Creek, the Tombigbee River, the Chattahoochee River, the Coosa River, the Holston River, and the Wheeler River. In Mississippi, the Mississippi River, Sipsey Creek, and the Pearl River contain the most toxic discharges, with the Mississippi ranking second overall as the most toxic river in the nation.
According to the U.S. EPA, pollution from industrial facilities is responsible for threatening or fouling water quality in more than 14,000 miles of rivers and more than 220,000 acres of lakes, ponds, and estuaries nationwide. The good news is that there has been a 2.6 percent decrease in overall volume of toxic releases since 2007, though it is debatable whether this is a result of the economic slowdown or eco-friendly industrial practices.
It is not uncommon for such public attention to result in increased investigation and enforcement for the industries on or near these waterways, and this may be particularly true during this highly-charged political season. The lawyers of the Environmental and Toxic Tort Practice Group and the Real Estate, Environmental & Natural Resources Litigation Team are experienced in assisting these industries with both appropriate water quality compliance and related investigations and enforcement.
Figure 1: Industrial Discharges of Toxic Chemicals into Waterways by State
© Environment America, Wasting Our Waterways 2012