Home > Uncategorized > As Millions Drink Dirty Water, No Change and No Accountability in Lisa Jackson’s EPA

As Millions Drink Dirty Water, No Change and No Accountability in Lisa Jackson’s EPA

“The same people who told us to ignore Safe Drinking Water Act violations are still running the divisions,” said one mid-level E.P.A. official. “There’s no accountability, and so nothing’s going to change.”  New York Times December 7, 2009

Lisa Jacskon testifies at her Senate confirmation hearing for EPA Administrator

Lisa Jackson testifies at her Senate confirmation hearing for EPA Administrator (photo: Bill Wolfe)

[Update below]

Charles Duhigg of The New York Times wrote another killer clean water story today: Millions in U.S. Drink Dirty Water, Records Show

Like his other Toxic Waters series on EPA failures to enforce the Clean Water Act, this story cuts through the sound bites and press release spin to document that millions of Americans drink unsafe water every day. Scrutinizing EPA’s lack of enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act, Duhigg found:

More than 20 percent of the nation’s water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act over the last five years, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data.

That law requires communities to deliver safe tap water to local residents. But since 2004, the water provided to more than 49 million people has contained illegal concentrations of chemicals like arsenic or radioactive substances like uranium, as well as dangerous bacteria often found in sewage.

Regulators were informed of each of those violations as they occurred. But regulatory records show that fewer than 6 percent of the water systems that broke the law were ever fined or punished by state or federal officials, including those at the Environmental Protection Agency, which has ultimate responsibility for enforcing standards. …

“I proposed drinking water cases, but they got shut down so fast that I’ve pretty much stopped even looking at the violations,” said one longtime official. “The top people want big headlines and million-dollar settlements. That’s not drinking water cases”

There’s no secret to this kind of excellent journalism – all it takes is to review EPA records and talk with the professionals who actually implement the environmental programs. Unfortunately,  most reporters never get past the press release, the press office, or the Lisa Jackson political spin.

In fact, today’s NY Times story sounds like an echo of what Lisa Jackson presided over here in New Jersey – as we documented in stories like Drink At Your Own Risk


  • More than 12% of over 51,000 residential wells sampled failed to meet drinking water standards;
  • The most common standard violations were for gross alpha particle activity (2,209 wells), arsenic (1,445 wells), nitrates (1,399 wells), fecal coliform or E. coli (1,136 wells), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (702 wells), and mercury (215 wells); and
  • These figures do not count extensive contamination from lead, found in more than 5,200 wells, because the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) considered the “results to be questionable” in part due to “unrealistically high concentrations of lead”

We also documented a pattern of ignoring scientists warnings and years of delays in adoption of protective drinking water standards for the toxic chemical perchlorate, the chemical found in rocket fuel – – see “Playing Politics with Your Drinking Water”. An MCL for perchlorate was proposed in March 2009, after Jackson had left DEP. It has yet to be adopted and is threatened by a proposed regulatory moratorium by incoming Governor Christie:

For more than 3 years, Jackson ignored those scientific recommendations and failed to act to protect drinking water from this toxic chemical.

As a result, thousands of people in NJ unknowingly may be drinking unsafe levels of cancer causing chemicals. Pregnant women and infants are considered to be sensitive subpopulations for perchlorate’s effects, as hypothyroidism can have serious consequences on neurodevelopment. Animal studies suggest that perchlorate causes tumors. The full extent of human exposure and health and environmental risks are not well known.

Amazingly, for more than 3 years, Jackson was given a pass on the issue by NJ environmental groups and media. This could not be due to ignorance, because a lead NJ environmentalist chairs the NJ Drinking Water Quality Institute’s Health Effects Subcommittee that wrote portions of the October 2005 Report to DEP.

The Times quotes EPA middle managers who raise management and accountability flaws and a hunger for headlines that sound very similar to those of Jackson’s management record at DEP as well. We reported:

EPA AUDIT RIPS NEW JERSEY DEP PERFORMANCE – Corrective Actions Never Implemented for Toxic, Wetlands and Other Programs

Washington, DC – A new audit by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency faults the quality and consistency of New Jersey programs for cleaning up toxic wastes, preserving wetlands and other key functions, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Many of the defects were first identified in a 2006 audit but Lisa Jackson, then head of the New Jersey agency and now EPA Administrator, neglected to put in place most of the corrective steps she had pledged to implement.

The state program for cleaning up toxic wastes operates on an honor system and does not check industry claims: “None of the Site Remediation Program’s bureaus interviewed do any project assessment and/or process improvement beyond data validation, (i.e. no field audits, no split samples, no internal assessments, etc). The EPA assessment team was told that Responsible Party contractors and/or NJDEP contractors are ˜certified professionals and taken at their word;

We applaud Mr. Duhigg’s outstanding reporting and can only hope that his efforts are emulated by other journalists.

Hint: The history and factual record on yesterday’s announcement of EPA plans to regulate green house gases strongly contradicts the spin – and the actual emissions increases associated with the 10 northeastern states’ RGGI cap and trade initiative are ripe for the picking.

Update – There are at least 3 more examples of Lisa Jackson’s NJ record that echo the NY Times documented EPA performance failures:

1. The NJ Water Supply Management Plan (WSMP), mandated by the Water Supply Management Act provides the framework for the data, science, policies, programs, and regulations to protect NJ drinking water. The WSMP must be updated on a 5 year cycle. The WSM Plan was last updated in 1996. Jackson took the helm at DEP in 2006 and inherited a 10 year old plan. Yet, during her tenure, she failed to update the WSM Plan, and DEP still has yet do to do. THis is despite the fact that Jackson’s own 2007 Priorities and Action Plan called for:

Complete the statewide Water Supply Master Plan and implement regulatory, education and compliance strategies to integrate its provisions into key DEP decision-making and programs as well as into local government and intergovernmental planning. (@ page 12)

2. The Highlands Regional Master Plan (RMP) is designed to manage land use in an 800,000 acre region to protect the drinking water supply of 5 million NJ residents. Under the Highlands Water Protection and Planning Act, the RMP is locally developed by a Council (legally in but not of DEP), but the RMP land use plan is required to conform to the DEP Highlands Rules to protect water resources. The DEP retains sole control over statewide science based water resource regulatory programs and the Governor retains a veto power over Council actions. The local Highlands Council prepared a flawed draft plan that would not adequately protect water resources or comply with DEP regulations. It was strongly opposed by environmentalists. Even Lisa Jackson publicly criticized the plan for lack of science based protective standards (listen to Jackson’s January 28, 2008 testimony). Yet despite this criticism, Jackson  ultimately politically supported the RMP and advised Governor Corzine to approve it. Worse, Jackson drafted an Executive Order that Corzine executed that stands the Highlands Act on its head by requiring that DEP regulations are consistent with the RMP. This effectively delegates control to the local, politically appointed Council over critical statewide science based DEP water resource protection regulations promulgated to implement the federal Clean Water Act.  So now local politicians dictate Clean Water Act decisions in the most critical region of the state.  Jackson also failed – for over 3 years as DEP Commissioner and then as Corzine’s Chief of Staff – to secure nominations to fill Council vacancies. As a result, those appointments are now under control of Gov. elect Chris Christie, who has evidenced a hostility to Highlands development restrictions and DEP regulations.

3. Drinking water standards for toxic chemical PFOA. Jackson not only failed to follow the science and promulgate protective MCL for PFOA, she personally intervened and attempted to block publication of a DEP risk assessment of PFOA in a peer reviewed journal. DEP scientists’ risk assessment recommended a very low 0.04 ppb MCL, 10 times lower than the federal EPA guidance level. See: TEFLON COATS PUBLIC AGENCY ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE – Jackson Sought to Have New Jersey PFOA Study Pulled from Publication

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