Community Right-To-Know about Pollution

Groups Champion Greater Public Disclosure Drinking Water

The communities of Bryan and College Station are not immune to pollution hazards according to the local Brazos Valley Group of Sierra Club, the Lone Star Chapter Sierra Club and Clean Water Action (CWA). The groups--citing the release of the new film, A Civil Action, starring John Travolta and Robert Duval, were calling public attention to drinking water contamination and the need for convenient public access to information about what contaminants are in drinking water and where they come from.

A Civil Action, based on the book of the same name, chronicles the true story of a lawsuit against two corporations with factories in Woburn, MA., after eight children in a single neighborhood died of leukemia. The film highlights the connection between ground water contamination resulting improper disposal of toxic chemicals and risks of drinking water and public health. The EPA eventually leveled multi-million dollar fines against the two companies for filing false information about their disposal practices.

"The residents of Bryan and College Station should recognize that these issues of hazardous pollutants in the environment are not just a concern of large cities," state Kevin Childs of the Brazos Valley Group of the Sierra Club. He added: "We have had our share of pollution right here. The residents near the Elf Atochem plant never were informed of the chemical hazards in their neighborhood. The community has also not been educated about the pollutants that will be allowed to be released from Koch Industries Ultra-Pure One plant in Bryan. Even in a small community like ours, we can face big city pollution."

"First there was the arsenic from Elf Atochern and now a new plant--Koch Micro- electronics--wants to release a host of harmful chemicals, including a highly toxic substance called hydrofluoric acid (HF). But the public is not informed about what the Koch plant will release into the community and no community meetings were held to discuss the plant's chemical pollution," stated Neil Carman with Lone Star Sierra Club. Carman added: "Koch, for instance, has a proposed permit from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission to release as much as 280 pounds of BF into the City of Bryan every year; this pollution can drift into College Station. What is HF? Hydrofluoric acid is a toxin of great concern and the EPA classifies it as a Hazardous Air Pollutant under Title III of the federal Clean Air Act of 1990. HF damages human bone tissue, penetrates human skin and even low level exposures are to be avoided."

"HF is also a community concern because it can travel as a toxic vapor cloud at ground level if a large release occurred at the plant." Carman also stressed: "Koch has a responsibility to Bryan-College Station residents to run a clean plant but several hundred pounds of emissions of substances like BF each year seem to call Koch's intentions into question. "

"Knowledge is the key to protecting our families' health and reducing contamination of the environment," said David Foster, Local Program Coordinator for Clean Water. "If we know when our water is contaminated, we can take steps to protect our families' health.

If we know what the source of the contamination is, then we can pressure the polluters to clean up their act. We as consumers currently have easier access to information about what's in a Hostess Twinkie than we do about what's in our tap water. We need to make sure that information about what is in our water--something we consume every day and tend to take for granted--is every bit as accessible and as easy to read as the information on a food label."

Foster pointed to two new tools created by the 1996 amendments to the federal Safe Drinking Water Act which, if used properly, can greatly expand what people know about their drinking water: Source Water Assessments and Right-to-Know Reports. In Source Water Assessments, each state is required to identify the source waters of all public drinking water systems and assess possible threats to the safety of these waters. New federal guidelines also require water utilities to begin sending out an annual Right-to- Know Report to their customers listing all known contaminants discovered in tap water the previous year, the potential health effects of these contaminants, the sources of contamination (if known), and other important information. The first Right-to-Know Reports must be sent out no later than October 1999.

"We must use the new guidelines on Source Water Assessments and Right-to-Know Reports to hold our state government and water utilities accountable to do a good job of finding out what contaminants are in our drinking water and putting the polluters on the map. The State of Texas then needs to make sure that every residential water user receives an easy to read Right-to-Know Report that list all contaminants in our tap water. "And," added Foster, "this information needs to be accessible through the Internet."