What Is Arsenic?

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in the earth’s crust, in both organic and inorganic forms. It is tasteless, odorless, and highly toxic.(2) (3)

Trace amounts of arsenic are found naturally in rocks and sediments. These are considered organic.

Inorganic arsenic is much more dangerous to humans.(4) The inorganic forms or compounds of arsenic are cancer-causing chemicals, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).(5)

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) there are various chemical forms of arsenic that, depending upon the form, can be released into groundwater and then get into drinking water supplies.(6)

Pipe leading to factory

Industrial Activity Causes Exposure

Arsenic can be in soil, the air we breathe, or the water we drink. Most concerning is exposure to arsenic through our water supplies.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), exposure to inorganic arsenic occurs when people use contaminated water for purposes such as drinking, cooking or irrigation.(7)

The USGS points out that arsenic’s primary pathway into drinking water supplies is through human activities such as:

  • Animal feed.
  • Industry.
  • Mining.
  • Pesticides.
  • Wood preservatives.(8)

Even copper and metal manufacturing, electronics, glass production, and medicine involve working with arsenic.(9)

Alarmingly, these pathways are primarily connected to private businesses, so they are not under the control of water providers. Providers rely on water sources that may be being contaminated by the illegal or negligent practices and processes of private businesses.

Cleanup for water supply contamination is costly, both in time and dollars. If the businesses are not made to pay for cleanup, the water providers have to pay. In the end, the water providers’ customers suffer the consequences, both in terms of property damage and health hazards.

Health Hazards and Symptoms

Ingestion of high levels of arsenic can be lethal. Arsenic exposure can also lead to higher risks of:

  • Bladder cancer.
  • Kidney cancer.
  • Liver cancer.
  • Lung cancer.
  • Prostate cancer.
  • Skin cancer.(10)

Acute symptoms of arsenic exposure include:

  • Death.
  • Cardiovascular system shutdown.
  • Central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) slow down.
  • Headache.
  • Metallic or garlic taste in mouth.
  • Vomiting.
  • Watery diarrhea.(11)

Chronic symptoms of arsenic exposure include:

  • Abnormal heart rhythm.
  • Blindness.
  • Seizures.
  • Partial paralysis.
  • Numbness in hands and feet.
  • Discoloration of skin.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Nausea.
  • Recurring diarrhea.
  • Small corns or warts on the palms, soles, and torso.
  • Thickening of skin.(12)

The WHO notes additional adverse health effects linked to long-term ingestion of inorganic arsenic include:

  • Developmental effects.
  • Negative impacts to cognitive development, intelligence, and memory.
  • Infant mortality and adverse pregnancy outcomes.
  • Cardiovascular disease.
  • Pulmonary disease.
  • Diabetes.(13)

Regulation of Drinking Water

The Safe Drinking Water Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1974 allows the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “to issue non-enforceable health goals and enforceable drinking water regulations for contaminants that may cause health problems.”(14)

Under the law, maximum contaminant level goals (MCLGs) are established at levels deemed to have no adverse effects. “The MCLG for arsenic is 0 parts per billion (ppb).” (15) The enforceable standard for arsenic is a maximum contamination level (MCL) of 10 ppb.(16)

By law, water providers are required to regularly test their water systems and submit an annual water quality report. Water providers are also required to notify customers when their water supply violates the arsenic standard.(17)

According to the EPA, water suppliers measure for arsenic at the entry points of their distribution systems, but arsenic levels can increase along the distribution system at any point, even in storage tanks. Any process changes can impact water quality at the customer’s end.(18)

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The EPA cautions that arsenic can attach and build up on pipes and tanks, especially where iron is present. Conditions such as changes in water chemistry and flushing of mains or fire flow can cause arsenic buildup to become dislodged and released into the water. Suppliers need to adjust their systems to address any corrosion concerns.(19)

Safe Water Tips for Suppliers

To be safe, suppliers should consider testing water at “locations where the settling and accumulation of iron solids or pipe scales are likely (i.e., areas with cast iron pipe, ductile iron pipe, or galvanized iron pipe),” the EPA advises.(20)

Additional tips to suppliers for preventing arsenic accumulation in their distribution systems include:

  • Adopt a unidirectional flushing program for water mains.
  • Check finished water pH and alkalinity after arsenic treatment is installed.
  • Clean and maintain storage tanks.
  • Monitor arsenic levels at drinking water taps, hydrants, and low flow dead-end areas.
  • Operate valves and hydrants to avoid sudden changes in flow direction or velocity.
  • Optimize distribution system operations to minimize water age.
  • Optimize treatment operations for turbidity removal.(21)

Suppliers are responsible for the water quality of their distribution systems. However, private businesses also contribute to the problem of contaminated water supplies. Where public safety becomes a concern, suppliers should hold those businesses accountable for their actions.

Pipe pouring dirty water

Businesses Contribute to the Problem

Recent allegations involving dumping of toxic waste and improper transport of waste have been made against many companies. These practices impact groundwater safety.

Here are a few specific cases that jeopardize groundwater supplies in communities across the country.

Dumping By Coal Plants Pollutes Groundwater

In January 2019, The Texas Tribune reported on the results of federally required groundwater monitoring.

The newly released report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) found “the groundwater around coal-fired plants across the state contain levels of pollutants like arsenic, boron, cobalt or lithium that would make it unsafe for human consumption.”(22)

In all, 16 Texas coal plants have unsafe levels of contaminants including arsenic causing pollution linked to disposal pits for spent coal.(23)

According to The Texas Tribune, an author of the report said, “We found contamination everywhere we looked, poisoning groundwater aquifers and recreational fishing spots across the state…This confirms that dumping large volumes of toxic waste in poorly-lined pits is a terrible idea.”(24)

Likewise, responsibility for groundwater contamination has clearly been laid on coal burning waste in other utility reports.

Also in January 2019, Inside Climate News states, “The clearest picture of coal ash contamination in the United States is emerging, with utilities reporting serious groundwater contamination in at least 22 states.”(25)

Still, coal is not the only cause for groundwater contamination. Other causes are emerging, some related to transport of waste.

Improper Transport of Hazardous Wastewater

A federal grand jury returned a 16-count indictment against three companies, the Department of Justice U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California announced in July 2018. Alleged violations included improper disposal, storage, and transport of hazardous waste, specifically arsenic.(26)

The companies involved include:

  • CG Roxane (“Crystal Geyser”), a bottled drinking water producer in Olancha, California.
  • United Pumping Services, Inc. (“United Pumping”), a hazardous waste and nonhazardous waste transportation services provider in City of Industry, California.
  • United Storm Water, Inc. (“United Storm Water”), a provider of environmental and lake drainage services located in the City of Industry, California.(27)

The U.S. States Attorney’s Office specifically stressed, “The investigation and indictment in this case focused on alleged violations involving Crystal Geyser’s wastewater, not the safety or quality of Crystal Geyser’s bottled water.”(28)

CG Roxane is said to have drawn water from natural sources containing naturally occurring arsenic for the production of bottled water, which they then filtered with sand filters to reduce arsenic concentrations in the water. To maintain the sand filters, a back-flushing technique was used that released arsenic into a hydroxide and water solution, generating arsenic-contaminated wastewater. This arsenic-contaminated wastewater was discharged into a nearby “Arsenic Pond.”(29)

CG Roxane next regenerated and back-flushed the sand filters, hiring United Pumping and United Storm Water to transport the contaminated wastewater and to drain the pond. The companies were to remove the hazardous wastewater to a facility authorized to accept this specific type of hazardous waste. However, during transport of the hazardous wastewater, the companies used manifests that did not disclose any information about the arsenic content of the wastewater. Further, the hazardous wastewater was transported to an unauthorized facility.(30)

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U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna stated, “Our nation’s environmental laws are specifically designed to ensure that hazardous wastes are properly handled from beginning to end ― from the point of generation to the point of disposal.”(31)

California is commonly facing industrial waste pollution, partly due to the mining operations in the state. According to the Western Watersheds Project California director, toxic chemicals pose serious health risks when they get into ponds, evaporate, and become airborne. The chemicals “could then settle in other ponds, streams, and rivers,” including groundwater, says Laura Cunningham.(32)

Automobile Manufacturer Sued For Water Contamination

Another case of business practices leading to groundwater contamination involves General Motors Proving Grounds near Milford, Michigan. A lawsuit was filed by residents of Brighton Township in Michigan.

The suit claims General Motors (GM) “has concealed and denied any claims resulting from water contamination even though in 2014, the company issued a Notice of Migration to nearby residents stating the proving grounds did contribute to groundwater contamination,” reports The Oakland Press.(33)

Residents near GM’s Milford proving grounds have suffered property damage and adverse health effects due to water contamination. (34) Other allegations against GM include fraud, negligence, violations of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, trespassing, and being a private and public nuisance.(35)

One resident says water tests conducted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) in June 2017 found increased levels of arsenic and sodium chloride in her home.(36)

Gavel and scale on table

Water Providers Should Hold Companies Accountable

Most water providers cannot afford to cover the enormous costs of cleanup for groundwater contamination. So water providers should consider legal action against companies whose business practices endanger the property and health of their customers. Such cases can be successfully litigated.

Weitz & Luxenberg has an experienced team of environmental attorneys who take on corporate giants in environmental cases. Our legal team is widely respected and highly successful. We reached a $423 million settlement in a landmark case involving contamination of 153 public water systems nationally.

Weitz & Luxenberg is currently representing water contamination clients in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, New York, as well as Merrimack, New Hampshire. These clients all face costly environmental hazards from contaminated water supplies.

Weitz & Luxenberg is also litigating for clients where manufacturing of coal tar products has contaminated stormwater ponds, leading to widespread pollution.