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Elephants Around The Roundtable

News coverage of drinking water risks is highly misleading

Risks of hundreds of unregulated chemicals and role of Dupont ignored

Murphy DEP gets false praise and a huge pass on longstanding regulatory failures

Let’s hope that one of the “expert” panelists at the upcoming NJ Spotlight PFAS Roundtable raises these issues.

Part 1: Troubling Linkage of News, Roundtables, and Sponsors

NJ Spotlight just announced another “Roundtable”, which will focus on the class of toxic chemical compounds dubbed “PFAS” (see registration information)

Join NJ Spotlight as we bring together experts to discuss the public health and policy challenges presented by PFAS, a class of chemicals that is linked to cancer and other illnesses.

Following a disturbing pattern, the Roundtable (free this time), follows a series of Spotlight news reports on the risks of PFAS, thereby linking news coverage of an issue to “by invitation” “expert” policy roundtables. This approach obliterates traditional lines of journalism and public policy development.

Of course these news – roundtable issue linkages tend to: 1) define the salient issues, 2) delimit the causes of the problem, 3) target the good guys and bad guys, 4) flesh out the scope of feasible solutions, and 5) limit the voices and perspectives of those qualified to participate in the discussion and advocate credible science based policy solutions.

In effect, NJ Spotlight is assuming the role of “honest broker” and “gatekeeper” in a way that shapes public perception and government’s role and responsibility.

Those are awesome powers – far beyond traditional journalism’s package of news reporting and editorial advocacy.

At worst, when those powers are combined with private elite foundation funding, they become anti-democratic, fundraising oriented, and essentially usurp governmental obligations (see: “Elite Charade”).

Spotlight’s tendency to cover issue – roundtable topics that impact their financial sponsors creates a tension, if not a public appearance of conflicts of interest.

Similarly, NJ Spotlight’s tendency to invite “expert” panelists – almost always moderate “safe” voices that do not threaten corporate interests or criticize government or powerful politicians – that are employed by environmental organizations that are funded by the same Spotlight Foundation sponsors is deeply anti-democratic, biased and creates an appearance of a self serving form of pay-to-play journalism.

This entire approach displaces and undermines effective government regulation, while tending to limit policy solutions to private, voluntary, market based tools and “win-win” “feel good measures” (e.g. see: NJ Spotlight Drinks Penn Foundation Kool-Aid)

For example, Wm. Penn and Dodge Foundation fund NJ environmental groups that work on issues and share a moderate, market oriented – as opposed to government regulation – perspective. Individuals from those organizations get quoted in NJ Spotlight stories and then invited to appear as “expert” panelists.

The most recent PFAS Roundtable is a good example of these flaws.

Part 2: Good News On PFAS Highly Misleading

As NJ Spotlight has written several times, the NJ Drinking Water Quality Institute (DWQI) recently made scientific recommendations and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)  adopted what are known as “Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL’s) to regulate some previously unregulated PFAS compounds in drinking water.

No doubt, that is good news – but an exclusive narrow focus on PFAS creates a highly misleading and false impression that the DWQI and DEP are aggressively protecting public health with strict regulatory standards.

Part 3: 500 Unregulated Chemicals Ignored

For context that exposes this falsehood, consider that in April 2010, DEP issued a scientific Report that found that there are over 500 unregulated chemicals in NJ drinking water, and that there are currently available treatment technologies to remove these chemicals at low cost, see:

This project evaluated the health effects information available on the TICs identified in the above study. Most were present below 1 ug/L. Toxicology data of any type was only available for 22% of the 524 chemicals evaluated. For many of these 22%, only acute toxicity information was available, and such acute data are not suitable for development of chronic health-based drinking water levels. Information which could be used to develop chronic drinking water concentrations was available for only a small fraction of the TICs. The results of this study suggest that chemical-by-chemical health risk assessment is not a feasible approach for addressing the many unregulated contaminants found at low concentrations in drinking water.

Based on this DEP scientific Report, we petitioned the Christie DEP:

for DEP rules to require disclosure, monitoring, treatment, and fee schedule to fully fund controls on currently unregulated drinking water contaminants.

The petition was denied and since then, DEP has done absolutely nothing to address the major scientific, policy and regulatory flaws documented in their 2010 Report.

We broke that major story and laid it all out in the PEER Report:

Trenton — New Jersey should filter its drinking water to remove hundreds of chemicals, most of which are unregulated, from its drinking water supply, according to a rulemaking petition filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The plan to screen many chemicals out of tap water was actually developed by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) but has been in limbo for the last six years.

Those issues all were ignored by the media.

It is beyond curious that of the HUNDREDS of unregulated toxic chemicals DEP found in NJ drinking water – along with the collapse of the DWQINJ Spotlight (and sponsors elite Wm. Penn & Dodge Foundations) focus exclusively on the SINGLE chemical that NJ DEP & DWQI effectively regulate.

But that’s not the only major drinking water issue ignored by the singular and misleading focus on the good news about DEP regulation of PFAS compounds.

Part 4: DUPONT Is A Very Big Elephant In The Room

The Spotlight coverage and Roundtable also ignore the role of DUPONT.

That’s like writing about lung cancer without mentioning cigarettes & how Big Tobacco lied about science. DUPONT suppressed PFAS science, misled regulators & put corporate profits before public health.

Spotlight has covered the PFAS/PFOA issue many times in the last few years. I have not inventoried them all, but   just this year, (2018) they have written 9 stories: see this, and this and this and this and this and this and this and this and this.

In 2017, Spotlight was a DEP cheerleader and DWQI fan. A role that goes way back to 2011.

Remarkably, not one story mentioned DUPONT, the NJ based polluter of PFAS compounds.

Dupont is the focal point of an explosion of investigative reporting. Here’s what the national coverage looks like on DUPONT and PFAS/PFOA compounds.

The NY Times wrote a major investigative  piece exposing Dupont’s abuses, scientific fraud, and crimes:

The story began in 1951, when DuPont started purchasing PFOA (which the company refers to as C8) from 3M for use in the manufacturing of Teflon. 3M invented PFOA just four years earlier; it was used to keep coatings like Teflon from clumping during production. Though PFOA was not classified by the government as a hazardous substance, 3M sent DuPont recommendations on how to dispose of it. It was to be incinerated or sent to chemical-waste facilities. DuPont’s own instructions specified that it was not to be flushed into surface water or sewers. But over the decades that followed, DuPont pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA powder through the outfall pipes of the Parkersburg facility into the Ohio River. The company dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA-laced sludge into ‘‘digestion ponds’’: open, unlined pits on the Washington Works property, from which the chemical could seep straight into the ground. PFOA entered the local water table, which supplied drinking water to the communities of Parkersburg, Vienna, Little Hocking and Lubeck — more than 100,000 people in all.

The Intercept wrote:

The history of PFAS compounds has mostly revolved around DuPont. That giant company also knew for decades that PFOA was escaping its plant, leaching into nearby drinking water, accumulating in the blood of its workers, and harming animals tested in its own labs. Since 2004, DuPont has paid more than $1 billion in class-action litigation and several related suits filed by people living near its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia — and faced massive public outrage over its actions.

To the extent that 3M has come up in coverage of the fast-growing PFAS story, it’s largely been as a footnote — and a foil. 3M was the company that invented PFOA and sold the toxic stuff to DuPont, whose corporate image was besmirched by the news of its deceptions around PFOA. DuPont has also faced a firestorm of protest over GenX, its similarly toxicreplacement for PFOA. …

3M would continue to sell PFOA to DuPont for more than four decades. Starting in the early 1950s, the company also made PFOS, a closely related compound that wound up in hundreds of products, including the company’s own Scotchgard fabric protector, which, by the end of the 1950s, was being applied to both upholstery and clothing; and firefighting foam that 3M provided exclusively to the U.S. military for decades. 3M went on to market some of these its fluorochemical products as “the solution for your problems.”

Yet not one word about this from NJ Spotlight.

Spotlight also ignored DUPONT is their coverage of the State fracking ban legislation – a bill that was targeted on and would apply only to DUPONT’s Deepwater facility – as well as DRBC regulation. Despite being a major toxic water polluter discharging to the Delaware River, DUPONT was ignored in coverage of fish consumption advisories, including those in Delaware Bay that can be traced to back to Dupont pollution. DUPONT was mentioned just once in Spotlight’s coverage of one aspect of the fracking ban issue.

Part 5: Collapse of Drinking Water Quality Institute Forgotten

But it’s not only 500+ unregulated chemicals in NJ drinking water and the role of DUPONT that are ignored by NJ Spotlight.

Despite the fact that Spotlight previously covered aspects of the Christie administration’s dismantling of the DWQI, they seem to have forgotten all that and dropped it from their coverage. Of course, this gives the Murphy DEP a huge pass.

Part 6: Prior DWQI Recommendations For 14 Stricter Standards for Carcinogens Ignored

And they also forget the fact that the DWQI has made recommendations to adopt lower MCL’s for about 14 carcinogenic chemicals that DEP has simply just ignored.

Part 7: NJ Residents Drink Recycled Sewage

And Spotlight never even covered the fact that, in the Passaic basin, drinking water sourced from the Passaic River is a toxic stew – during summer dry season, up to 95% of the flow of the river is from sewage treatment plants, see this:

NJ residents are not aware of this startling fact, in part because the media fails to cover the story – with a few one off exceptions by NJ Spotlight and the Bergen Record.

Part 8: DEP Standards Are Lax

I could go on and describe addition issues where drinking water risks are not properly reported and where DEP has failed to effectively regulate known risks.

The two most recent are related news reports about high levels of  cancer causing “disinfectant byproducts” in Newark’s drinking water and a scientific study by the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences that shows that NJ DEP’s water quality standards for phosphorus are weak and need to be lowered.

These stories are related and both point to major flaws in NJ DEP regulations. The press failed to connect the dots, and so did the “expert” from NRDC, who falsely claimed that source of the high organic content of source water is “leaves”, not algae.

As shown by the Philadelphia Academy study, excessive phosphorus levels drive excessive growth of algae, a process known as eutrophication. When used for water supply, the excessive algae must then be treated at a drinking water plant, which creates the cancerous disinfection byproducts found in Newark’s water.

In 2002, in a project I was closely involved with, the NJ DEP began to impose strict limits on sewage treatment plant discharges of phosphorus, but that effort was derailed by the Corzine administration.

Ironically, most of the scientific work for that DEP effort was done by Tom Belton, who retired from DEP and conducted the current Philadelphia Academy study. Ironic because, while at DEP, Belton allowed his work to support an “exit ramp” to provide relief from stricter phosphorus effluent limits. The original narrowly tailor “exit ramp” exception became a huge “bypass” rule, based on Belton’s work.

Part 9: What Ever Happened To the DEP “Source Water Protection Program”?

And finally, while were talking about source water, there has been zero reporting on the failed DEP “Source Water Assessment Program” (SWAP).

That program required every public water supply system in NJ to, among other things, inventory all pollution threats to drinking water supply sources – including from unregulated chemicals from toxic waste sites and landfill – and the vulnerability of the drinking water sources to those pollution threats.

Common sense would suggest that once a threat was identified, then DEP would require that local water systems take s steps to prevent pollution and protect public health.

For example, if a SWAP investigation found that a landfill or toxic waste site polluted groundwater with unregulated chemical X, and that it would take 10 years for chemical X to migrate through groundwater into the local water supply well field, then the local water system would be required to monitor to detect chemical X and treat for it if it was detected in source water.

But DEP – despite knowing that unregulated toxic chemicals are migrating to public water supplies – does absolutely nothing to prevent contamination.

And the public nows nothing at all about all that.

So, next time you read a NJ Spotlight story that makes DEP appear to be an aggressive regulator and protector of drinking water, think again.

Part 10 – They Want To Privatize Your Local Drinking Water System

(Text and links forthcoming)

Let’s hope that one of the “expert” panelists at the upcoming Spotlight PFAS Roundtable raises these issues.

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