Water Contamination

Everyone is entitled to have clean, safe water. Water contamination occurs when water is made unsafe for humans, animals, or plants. No matter where drinking water comes from, it can become contaminated. Sometimes, it’s necessary to pursue legal means to get it cleaned up again. That’s where we can help.
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Weitz & Luxenberg Battles Water Contamination

Weitz & Luxenberg is an advocate and leader in the fight to protect the public from contaminated drinking water. A recent study of public water supplies found unsafe levels of chemicals in the water consumed every day by 6 million people.1 Unfortunately, that number represents only the tip of the iceberg when you factor in the number of people whose water was not tested as part of the study, including those who consume contaminated water from private wells, or people whose water is at risk of being contaminated.

The fact is, many in the U.S. assume their drinking water is safe only to learn later they have been consuming toxic chemicals due to inadequate pollution controls and hazardous waste disposal practices. The results for a community like Flint, Michigan, for example, where residents were told their water was safe even after it was knowingly switched to an unsafe source, have been devastating. In other communities, like Hoosick Falls, New York, residents only recently learned that they have been consuming a tasteless, odorless toxic chemical for decades.

Fighting Against MTBE Contamination in Groundwater

Weitz & Luxenberg brought actions on behalf of municipal water providers against various international oil companies that contaminated groundwater with the gasoline additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE). MTBE is known to cause cancer when consumed by humans. Due to the contamination, the municipal water providers were unable to deliver safe, clean water to residents for consumption and other general uses.

Weitz & Luxenberg served as co-liaison counsel in the MTBE litigation, which revealed pollution of water wells and reservoirs in 17 states. Ultimately, Weitz & Luxenberg secured a $423-million settlement on behalf of numerous public water supply companies that sought to bring clean water to their communities.

The firm’s environmental unit has expanded into the Environmental, Toxic Tort & Consumer Protection Unit and has continued to take a leading position litigating against polluters. The firm continues to represent municipal water providers whose production wells have become polluted. The unit also works with communities, such as Flint, Michigan, and Hoosick Falls, New York, or with individuals directly exposed to contaminants in their drinking water.

Attorneys Dedicated to Combating Polluters

Robin Greenwald heads the firm’s Environmental, Toxic Tort & Consumer Protection Unit. Prior to joining Weitz & Luxenberg in 2005, Ms. Greenwald served as a senior attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice. Ms. Greenwald began her career in law as an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. She later became assistant chief of the Environmental Crimes Section of the Department of Justice, in charge of Legislation, Policy and Special Litigation.

From there, Ms. Greenwald was appointed as General Counsel for the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of the Interior. She then served as executive director of an international not-for-profit water protection organization and as a clinical professor of law at Rutgers Law School.

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Federal judges have consistently recognized Ms. Greenwald’s knowledge and expertise in environmental law. She has served as plaintiffs’ liaison counsel in In Re: Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (”MTBE”) Products Liability Litigation (MDL 1358) for the past decade, and she was named a member of the Plaintiffs’ Steering Committee for the BP Oil Spill litigation (MDL 2179), Volkswagen “Clean Diesel” Marketing litigation (MDL 2672), and the Southern California Gas Leak litigation (JCCP No. 4861).

A team of eight attorneys work within the unit and they possess, collectively, nearly a century of legal experience. The unit’s attorneys work closely with our clients and experts within the field and have developed an extensive knowledge of relevant information and the ability to effectively convey that information to the court. Understanding the toxicology of a chemical and the hydrogeology relevant to transporting a contaminant in groundwater from a release point to a drinking water production well, as well as having the ability to present that information in a concise and coherent manner, requires a deft touch that only comes with experience and ability.

Water Contamination Investigations and Lawsuits

Water providers, communities, and individual victims of water contamination can seek compensation through the legal system. Weitz & Luxenberg firmly believes that the party responsible for the contamination should shoulder the obligation and the cost for all injuries arising from pollution in drinking water.

Weitz & Luxenberg’s active involvement in investigations and lawsuits over water contamination include but are not limited to:

  • Bethpage, New York – Groundwater testing has identified trichloroethylene (TCE), other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and radium-228 threatening the local water supply. Weitz & Luxenberg filed an action on behalf of the Bethpage Water District in an effort to address this contamination before it impacted the municipal water and to ensure that the entities responsible for the contamination cover the costs associated with addressing this pollution threat.
  • Flint, Michigan — President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint, Michigan, after lead seeped into the city’s drinking water and caused a massive public health crisis.
  • Willow Grove, PA — W&L filed a federal class action lawsuit against six producers of firefighting foam after training operations on military bases exposed unknowing residents to contaminated water. We continue to fight for the people living in eastern Pennsylvania, who for 40 years were subjected to the dangerous chemicals perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in their drinking water.
  • Petersburgh, New York — W&L filed a class action lawsuit over water contamination in Petersburgh, New York. The suit alleges that Taconic Plastics Limited improperly disposed of PFOA in the community for years. As a result, the chemical spread into the municipal water supply and the surrounding environment.

Attorneys with the environmental unit also are currently working with the Attorneys General of Vermont and Rhode Island in connection with statewide groundwater contamination from MTBE.

Helping Affected Communities

Weitz & Luxenberg hosts meetings in communities affected by environmental pollution. We have met with families in New York, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Michigan to listen to their stories and provide updates on our investigations into water contamination.

For more information about what we have learned so far in our investigations or to discuss your legal options, please call (800) 476-6070 or fill out our form.

We understand your concerns and anger over water contamination in your community, and we want to help. There is no charge for our legal consultations.

About Public Drinking Water Systems

Ninety percent of Americans get their water from public drinking water systems regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).2 Public drinking water systems can be publicly or privately owned. The EPA regulates the drinking water quality and sets the maximum concentration levels for water chemicals and pollutants.3

Drinking water supplied to people’s homes comes from two sources:

Surface water — water that collects in streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. Surface water systems extract water, treat it, and deliver it to homes.

Groundwater — water that collects in pores and spaces within rocks and in underground aquifers. Groundwater systems drill wells and pump water to the surface. They do not always treat the water before delivering it to homes.4

warning sign for water contamination

EPA Public Drinking Water Systems Classifications

The U.S. has about 155,000 public water systems. The EPA identifies these water systems based on how many people they serve, where their water comes from, and whether they serve the same customers all year or less frequently. 

The EPA classifies public water systems into three types:

  • Community Water System (CWS) — supplies water to the same customers all year. About 32% of public water systems are community systems.
  • Non-Transient Non-Community Water System (NTNCWS) — regularly provides water to 25 or more of the same people at least half the year. Examples include schools, factories, office buildings, and hospitals that have their own water systems. 
  • Transient Non-Community Water System (TNCWS) — supplies water to gas stations, campgrounds, and other places where people do not stay for extended periods of time. 5

More than 286 million Americans get their tap water from a community water system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most community water systems use groundwater, but more people get their water from community water systems that use surface water. Eight percent of U.S. community water systems provide water to 82% of the U.S. population through large municipal water systems.6

Safe Drinking Water Act

In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act, which sought to protect the nation’s public drinking water supply.

The law gives the EPA authority to determine the standards for drinking water quality and to work with the states and water suppliers who apply those standards.

Congress amended the law in 1986 and 1996 to protect drinking water and its sources, including rivers, lakes, reservoirs, springs, and groundwater wells.7

Sources of Drinking Water Contamination

Contamination of public water systems can come from many sources. Contaminants can be natural or human-induced. Industrial discharges, urban activities, agriculture, and disposal of waste can all affect water quality. So can leaking fuel tanks, toxic chemical spills, and pesticides and fertilizers applied to lawns and crops. 8

According to the CDC, the most common sources of contaminants are:

  • Arsenic, radon, uranium, and other naturally occurring chemicals and minerals.
  • Fertilizers, pesticides, livestock, concentrated animal feeding operations, and other local land use practices.
  • Manufacturing processes.
  • Sewer overflows.
  • Malfunctioning wastewater treatment systems, such as nearby septic systems. 9
person taking water sample in large glass beaker

Chemical Contaminants Currently Found in Water

PFOA and PFOS

PFOA and PFOS are part of the group of chemicals called perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals have been used in numerous industrial processes and for fighting fires at airfields.

The EPA issued lifetime health advisories for PFOA and PFOS in 2016. The agency says it develops health advisories to provide information on contaminants that can cause health reactions in humans and are known or anticipated to occur in drinking water.10

MTBE

MTBE is a flammable, colorless liquid added to gasoline to help it burn better. For most people, water contamination is the most likely source of MTBE exposure. MTBE can contaminate water through gasoline spills and leaking gas storage tanks and pipelines.

If gasoline is spilled onto the ground or leaks out of underground storage tanks, MTBE is more likely to contaminate drinking water because it dissolves easily and can travel faster and farther through groundwater than other components of gasoline. It also can remain in underground water for a long time.11

Water Contamination Can Cause Health Complications

If a water system becomes contaminated, such as in Hoosick Falls, New York, anyone who drinks the water may be at risk of developing adverse health effects.

Weitz & Luxenberg has brought legal actions on behalf of individuals who have suffered a specific injury from exposure to hazardous chemicals in their drinking water or environment. These cases remain extremely complicated and, unfortunately, limited.

Despite what one might see as an obvious link between contaminated drinking water and an unexplained illness, in most cases, the law limits recovery to cases where we can demonstrate with expert testimony a link between a specific chemical and a specific injury and show that the individual was exposed to that chemical at a level sufficient to result in the illness.12

  1. Balan, S.A. & et al. (2016, August 9). Detection of Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) in U.S. Drinking Water Linked to Industrial Sites, Military Fire Training Areas, and Wastewater Treatment Plants. Retrieved from http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.estlett.6b00260
  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Information about Public Water Systems. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/dwreginfo/information-about-public-water-systems
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, April 7). Public Water Systems. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/public/index.html
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012, June 29). Drinking Water FAQ. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/drinking-water-faq.html#where
  5. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Information about Public Water Systems. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/dwreginfo/information-about-public-water-systems
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014, April 7). Public Water Systems. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/public/
  7. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2004, June). Understanding the Safe Drinking Water Act. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-04/documents/epa816f04030.pdf
  8. U.S. Geological Survey. (2016, December 2). Contaminants Found in Groundwater. Retrieved from https://water.usgs.gov/edu/groundwater-contaminants.html
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012, June 29). Drinking Water FAQ. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/drinking/public/drinking-water-faq.html
  10. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2016, November). Fact Sheet PFOA & PFOS Drinking Water Health Advisories. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-06/documents/drinkingwaterhealthadvisories_pfoa_pfos_updated_5.31.16.pdf
  11. American Cancer Society. (2014, July 17). MTBE and Cancer Risk. Retrieved from https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/mtbe.html

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