PORT ARTHUR, Texas (SBG) — There’s alarming new information about pollution in our nation's water systems. You might be shocked to hear that hundreds of millions of pounds of toxic substances have leaked into our nation’s waterways in just one year. The contamination includes chemicals that can cause cancer and birth defects.
The Clean Water Act was supposed to protect against this type of pollution decades ago. So why didn't it happen?
Now, armed with new information about the toxic threat to our health, experts say more needs to be done to hold polluters accountable.
Industry looms large over the city of Port Arthur, Texas, which has long been the home to some of the nation's biggest chemical and oil refining facilities.
Activist John Beard took us on a tour of the energy corridor in Port Arthur, a place he now calls the "belly of the beast." Beard worked in the petroleum industry for nearly 40 years. Now, he's one of its biggest critics.
Beard believes the chemical and energy plants lining the waterfront of the Neches River are leaking toxic substances into the water and soil that this community was built on. It's turned the river basin into one of the most polluted waterways in the country, potentially endangering the lives of tens of thousands of people.
I've had people tell me about times that the water looked like it had a foam on it, like a head of beer. And then I've had water, my own water that came out looking cloudy," John Beard told Spotlight on America.
According to a recent report that examined pollution in the nation's waterways, there were nearly 6,700 pounds of cancer-causing chemicals released into the lower Neches watershed in 2020 alone.
But the problem of toxic dumping spills far beyond Texas, and experts like John Rumpler say most Americans don't even know what's going on.
John Rumpler is a senior attorney for the Environment America Research and Policy Center and authored a new report called Wasting Our Waterways: Toxic pollution and the unfulfilled promise of the Clean Water Act, written in conjunction with the PIRG Education Fund and the Frontier Group. It revealed stunning facts about what's really in American rivers and streams.
Rumpler and his co-authors tracked self-reported data sent to the EPA by factories and facilities across the US, finding that 193.6 million pounds of toxic chemicals were released into our rivers and waterways in 2020 alone.
Some of those chemicals are linked to cancer, birth defects, and developmental hazards for children," Rumpler said. "These are really serious health threats for many of these chemicals.
According to the report, facilities released toxic substances into 844 local watersheds nationwide. That's about one in every three local watersheds in the U.S.
His research put Texas at the top of the list for the most toxic substances released, followed by Indiana, Virginia, Louisiana and Alabama.
Among the worst offenders are an army ammunition plant, metal mining facilities and electric utility companies.
Rumpler added that meat and poultry processing plants are also among the biggest dischargers of the pollution, particularly hazardous substances known as nitrates, and the pollution standards for those plants hasn't been updated since 2004, essentially allowing for those industries to poison waterways.
The report breaks down the major health impacts of the pollution.
How is the pollution continuing, despite rules in place to prevent it?
The report makes the case that the 50-year-old Clean Water Act, designed to protect our nation's waterways from precisely this kind of threat, hasn't delivered on its promise.
"The Clean Water Act says quite clearly that the goal is to make all of our waterways safe for swimming, safe for fishing, and to preserve the integrity of all of our nation's waters," said Rumpler. "How can we have nearly 200 million pounds of toxic substances being dumped into our waterways? It's completely in contravention to that goal."
For Rumpler, the issue is local and political. He told us local regulators sometimes lack the political will to take on powerful industries.
I think that the Clean Water Act provides for very strong penalties. Whether state officials choose to go for those aggressive penalties or just give polluters a slap on the wrist is another story," he told us. "I really think the problem is mainly that state agencies are not using the enforcement authority they already have.
Rumpler says if states don't act, it can be left up to citizens and private organizations to seek civil penalties, and that process can take years to play out.
Port Arthur, Texas is a city of 55,000 people, where 74% are black or Latino. It's long been known that communities of color often face the most exposure to pollution, and the health effects that come with it.
John Beard believes there's already a cancer cluster forming, possibly due to the toxic pollution that continues to invade his community. He wants to see stricter standards for the industries that are prospering economically in the area, but may be harming its residents.
You're putting their lives in danger when you put substances that are not good for the human body or human consumption into the very waterways that these people use and recreate and eat from," said Beard.
He put it plainly. "Port Arthur is a sacrifice zone."
He hopes to see action that will reverse the course soon. It may start with the recommendations set forth by the Wasting Our Waterways report.
The report recommends a list of solutions to tackle the problem, including:
Read the full report and all of its recommendations here.
The report also points out that there are limitations to what data is reportable, and thus the scope of the pollution we can understand. Not all industrial facilities are required to report their toxin releases to the EPA, and not all toxic substances are included in that requirement, With that in mind, the report states "the data included in this report should be understood to reveal only a fraction of what is likely a much larger and more pervasive problem of toxic discharges to waterways."