New report highlights how toxic “accidents waiting to happen” threaten U.S. waterways

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Kara Cook-Schultz

Study details threats to clean water from five types of facilities, even as the Trump administration seeks to roll back protections

U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Facilities storing billions of gallons of toxic waste threaten America’s rivers and millions of people who live near them, according to a new report from the Environment America Research & Policy Center, U.S. PIRG Education Fund and the Frontier Group. Entitled  Accidents Waiting to Happen: Toxic Threats to Our Rivers, Lakes, and Streams, the study documents toxic pollution threats from five types of facilities and offers answers on how to prevent them.

The report pinpoints the dangers posed to waterways from toxic chemical storage, oil trains and pipelines, factory farm manure lagoons, coal ash ponds and fracking waste pits. While some of these pollute rivers, lakes and streams on an ongoing basis, the risks of one-off catastrophic spills are even greater as climate change-fueled hurricanes and flooding cause overflows, breaches and accidents, the study explains.

“In our heedless rush to produce more and more stuff, we’ve structured our economy in ways that produce enormous amounts of toxic waste,” said John Rumpler, senior director of Environment America’s clean water program and co-author of the report. “Stored or transported near our waterways, these toxic hazards are accidents waiting to happen.”

The report offers numerous case studies that indicate how much damage these hazards can produce. For example, in 2014, a chemical storage facility leaked into West Virginia’s Elk River, contaminating the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people. Last fall, in North Carolina, Hurricane Florence caused both coal ash ponds and hog waste lagoons to overflow.  And oil pipelines (and trains) have polluted rivers from Montana to Michigan.

“As extreme weather events become more frequent and more severe, these sites will become even more dangerous,” observed U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko of New York, who now chairs the House subcommittee on the environment and climate change. “In the long run, our only responsible answer is to prevent these toxic sites from being created in the first place.”

“With the combination of man-made and natural disasters — from the Flint water crisis to Hurricane Florence — you’d think we’d do everything we can to ensure Americans have safe drinking water,” said Kara Cook-Schultz, U.S. PIRG’s toxics program director. “Each of these accidents waiting to happen is a potential ticking time bomb for public health.”

At a time when the Trump administration is stripping Clean Water Act protections from thousands of streams and wetlands and weakening modest safeguards around coal ash ponds and fracking waste on public lands, the report recommends a number of policy changes in the opposite direction. They include keeping risky facilities away from waterways, setting and enforcing strict standards for existing toxic facilities, and rejecting any efforts to weaken existing federal clean water protections.

“Damaging spills seem to have become a fact of life after flooding or big storms,” said Gideon Weissman of Frontier Group, report co-author. “That’s because there are toxic facilities situated on rivers and lakes all across the country. This isn’t a scattered threat, it’s a systemic problem that puts our waterways at risk.”


Environment America Research & Policy Center works to protect clean water, clean air, and open spaces.  We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives.

U.S. PIRG Education Fund is an independent, non-partisan group that works for consumers and the public interest. Through research, public education and outreach, we serve as counterweights to the influence of powerful special interests that threaten our health, safety or well-being.