This is why we have regulations. As well meaning as any business might be, failure to regulate businesses can often have disastrous consequences for consumers, nearby residents, or even residents that live miles downstream or downwind of a business that is polluting.
Kansas officials allowed hundreds of residents in two neighborhoods to drink contaminated water for years without telling them.
The Wichita Eagle reports that the state discovered dry cleaning chemicals had contaminated groundwater at a Haysville laundromat in 2011. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment didn’t act for more than six years.
The state didn’t test private wells less than a mile away, nor did it notify residents that their drinking wells could be contaminated so they could test the water themselves.
Now, at first this story looks like it could be just a case of government negligence. But nope, it is a case of purposeful weakening of government regulations. Does that sound familiar? It should, because the Trump Administration has engaged in an unprecedented roll-back of environmental and other business regulations. Here’s what happened in Kansas:
The Kansas Drycleaner Environmental Response Act was passed at the request of the dry cleaning industry to protect the small businesses from the potentially crippling cost of federal involvement. The Environmental Protection Agency, through its Superfund program, can pay to clean up water pollution and then bill any and all companies ever associated with the property to recover its money. Cleaning up pollution can easily cost millions of dollars; state law limits the liability of a dry cleaning shop to $5,000.
To raise money to investigate and clean up pollution, the state passed a tax on dry cleaning chemicals. While the KDHE supported the bill, one KDHE official warned the Legislature that a tax on cleaning solvent “would not be sufficient funding.”
The Legislature passed the law, including a line that directed the KDHE not to look for contamination from dry cleaners. The Legislature also directed the KDHE to “make every reasonable effort” to keep sites off the federal Superfund list.
And so, with the passing of the law, it became official government policy to look the other way. In this case, the roll-back occurred in 1995. And it’s effects are being felt 23 years later. I fear for what effects we will be seeing from Trump Administration regulatory roll-backs and for how long.
This type of regulatory roll-back can lead to tragic health consequences.
“We thought we were safe and then the more we thought about it, we looked up at who had died and who had been sick in our neighbors,” said Randi Williams, whose Wichita neighbors’ wells tested positive for PCE. “Everyone up and down the street has had something or (the) other.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Effects resulting from acute (short term) high-level inhalation exposure of humans to tetrachloroethylene include irritation of the upper respiratory tract and eyes, kidney dysfunction, and neurological effects such as reversible mood and behavioral changes, impairment of coordination, dizziness, headache, sleepiness, and unconsciousness. The primary effects from chronic (long term) inhalation exposure are neurological, including impaired cognitive and motor neurobehavioral performance. Tetrachloroethylene exposure may also cause adverse effects in the kidney, liver, immune system and hematologic system, and on development and reproduction. Studies of people exposed in the workplace have found associations with several types of cancer including bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma.”
Lest you think this is just an isolated incident, the State of Kansas fears that it might just be the tip of an iceberg.
More contaminated sites keep being found, despite the state not being allowed to search for them: The list of sites accepted to the dry cleaning program goes up every year, from 14 in 1995 to 72 in 2002 to 163 today. Usually they’re identified when the KDHE is investigating other contamination, such as leaking gasoline tanks at service stations.
Faced with a rising number of contaminated sites and a decreasing amount of income, the dry cleaning trust fund has struggled to keep up.
In October, about an additional 70 sites remained as part of a backlog, waiting for funding before the state could determine the extent of the contamination and whether there were drinking water wells in the area.
We need to erase this fiction that Republican politicians have foisted upon the nation of regulations being unnecessary and something to be removed at all times. Regulations are for public safety. They are a basic and important function of government. And that is what we need to get back to: a government that prioritizes citizens and works to protect citizens, not a government that prioritizes businesses and works to protect profits.