The release of the new film, A Civil Action, starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall, is being hailed by Clean Water Action (CWA), the Sierra Club and U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) as a rare opportunity to call 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 from improper disposal of toxic chemicals and risks to 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.
Environmentalists warn that problems like those that occurred in Woburn could occur anywhere in the country. "A host of harmful chemicals pollute our drinking water in Texas, but the public is not informed about what they are drinking," stated Neil Carman with Lone Star Sierra Club. Carman added: "What kinds of chemicals? The chemicals of greatest concern are the persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic substances (called PBTs) like dioxins, furans, PCBs, mercury, lead, pesticides and others. These substances can cause health problems--including cancer, birth defects, sterility, immune system damage and neurological dysfunction--at remarkably low exposure levels (even as low as parts per trillion), but the public is not informed about the PBT levels in their drinking water."
"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.."
Brenda Barron of U.S. PIRG pointed to the need for stronger federal laws. "The movie A Civil Action is a powerful reminder that toxic pollution causes untold pain to real families. Superfund, the primary law for cleaning up toxic waste, must be strengthened to protect innocent families and their communities. The last Congress failed to re-authorize Superfund and in fact attempted to weaken it. In 1999 the new Congress needs to listen to the message of the Woburn families and protect the public by strengthening not weakening Superfund and expand our right to know about toxic chemical use in communities."