Readers Write: Adding to whacking-drinking-water moles

Readers Write: Adding to whacking-drinking-water moles

I thank the author for the informative Earth Matters essay “Playing whack-a-mole with our water.”

My segue begins with noting a factual error and takes things from there: “First of all, you should know that there are no government regulations on bottled water.”

It’s a common belief, it’s not correct. Federal quality standards for bottled water were first adopted in 1973.  FDA regulates bottled water under the FD&C Act, which generally mirrors EPA’s standards. FDA links are below.

Federal drinking water standards work like this:

EPA regulates tap drinking water supplied by public water purveyors.

FDA regulates bottled waters.  Whether called artesian, spring, well, mineral, purified…

And FDA regulates water in juices and sodas, though not completely using its bottled water standards.  Sodas and flavored waters include added constituents, carbonation (CO2), colors, sugars, flavors (artificial & natural), solids, minerals, vitamins, chemicals, preservatives.  For example, soda may have sodium benzoate as a preservative, which over time or exposed to heat can break down to benzene, which is toxic and a carcinogen.

States can develop their own drinking water standards, which must be at least as protective as EPAs.  Some state standards are more protective than others. NJ standards for PCE and TCE are 1ppb each, NY uses 5ppb respectively, Federal standards are 5ppb.

Private water well owners are generally responsible for ensuring the quality of their water, also well maintenance, upkeep, sampling—exceptions can occur when wells are impacted by a contaminant plume, then might fall under Superfund, Brownfields, or other federal, state, or local program.

Let’s discuss private wells and circle back.

I managed a Superfund Site where 300-plus residences with potable wells were contaminated or at risk from a spreading industrial plume.  Wells were the responsibility of each residence until New Jersey deferred to EPA and its Superfund authority.  EPA constructed over 20 miles of water lines to residences, a 2 MGPD treatment plant to treat the most heavily contaminated part of the plume to drinking water standards, then reinjected the treated water back into the aquifer.

Oddly, many people didn’t want to be connected to public water, because they were used to “free water,” whereas public water has recurring charges of hundreds to thousands of dollars a year.

Things get messy when property law conflicts with safety and contaminated private wells. It becomes a “takings” or seizure issue, the federal government has a bad Big Brother image as it is.  Further, EPA does not have much clout in this regard and has to get DOJ to sue each reluctant property owner in federal court to close a contaminated well.  DOJ is simply overwhelmed and doesn’t want to get involved in hundreds of “takings” that can tie up federal courts for years—not even for a Superfund site.  Interestingly, at the time federal judges told me over 50% of all federal court cases are immigration related. Criminal, terrorist, tax, and other cases comprise a big chunk, followed by relatively few environmental cases.

DOJ said no, so what to do?  We worked with local jurisdictions to enforce their ordinances, a few had to enact new ordinances.  Jurisdictions took reluctant well owners to local courts to enforce closures, quickly.

Concurrently, the site’s potentially responsible party finally agreed to pay for well closures and to hook properties up to public water (20-plus miles), though not pay recurring water charges.

All in all, that’s how our environmental protections work, in a kind of hodge-podge way—relatively recent patchworks of continually evolving approaches, policies, codes, protections, cobbled onto older laws and the primacy of property law.  I doubt anyone would set out to design such a system from scratch.

Remember, property is enshrined in the Constitution, as are state rights, not “protecting” the environment nor drinking water safety. The latter mostly came about in the 1970s as add-ons, things started kicking into gear after Rachel Carlson’s provocative “Silent Spring.” I loved that treatise.

That said, when I was with EPA, I put in to assist the Army Corps of Engineers find suitable locations to drill water wells for our troops in Afghanistan, because at the time potable water was coming in through Pakistan on trucks that were continually being ambushed.  I learned the Army applied different standards for its overseas base well water than EPA’s standards.

I thought the standards were somewhat less protective.  I asked why and was told concentrations for some parameters may be higher because Afghanistan involved limited short-term deployment and exposure, whereas as I knew, EPA’s potable water risk modeling assumes people drink the water for 30 years. Thus, short-term exposure concentrations can be higher.

A similar analogy, OSHA’s permissible exposure levels (PELs) for workers are based on exposure time. The short term PEL for acetone in air is 1000pm; for 8 hrs the PEL is 500ppm; for 10 hrs it’s 250ppm. Concentrations decrease for longer term exposures.

In brief, FDA’s bottled water standards generally mirror EPA’s drinking water standards, but can differ mostly based on the risk modeling being applied.  EPA’s website links to convenient charts of public water supply standards. I’ve never found a convenient chart on FDA’s website for bottled water standards, I always have to go to the Code of Federal Regulations. That CFR link is below.

If interested, FDA’s Dec 22, 2023 CFR update is: TITLE 21—FOOD AND DRUSG CHAPTER 1—FDA—DEPATRMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES SUBCHAPTER B – FOOD AND HUMAN CONSUMPTION, PART 165 — BEVERAGES. Subpart B - Requirements for Specific Standardized Beverages. Sec 165.110 Bottled Water.

There you have it, my limited take, in a nut shell.

Click or cut and paste these links to FDA's bottled water information:

Stephen Cipot

Garden City Park

The author worked in oil, gas, and mining, including for a Fortune 500 multinational, then had a satisfying career as a project manager and geologist with the USEPA, basically undoing what industry does so well—pun intended.

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