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---October 10, 1988---
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[Continuing our series, What we must do: We first looked at the waste industry which buries poisonous chemicals in the ground for the producers of those chemicals; now we are looking at the producers themselves, asking when they learned about the toxicity of their products and the effects those products would have if dumped onto, or into, the ground. Did they ever have reason to believe people would not be poisoned?]

The U.S. Public Health Service sponsored a national conference in April, 1961, entitled "Ground Water Contamination." Three hundred experts attended from government, industry and universities. The 1961 report of the conference summarizes a large body of scientific knowledge that had accumulated during the first half of the 20th century. The report makes it crystal clear that the entire problem of groundwater contamination from chemical waste disposal, and from landfilling of municipal wastes, was well understood, well documented, and the subject of urgent warnings in 1961.

The picture in 1961 was essentially as we know it today:

95% of the nation's surface waters were being used in 1961 so "groundwater affords the only water resource available for supplying much of the anticipated three-fold increase in the amount of water that will be required 30 years from now [i.e., in 1991]," said the U.S. Geological Survey. (pg. 32)

Underground water is vulnerable to poisoning by chemicals, because when chemicals are dumped onto, or into, the ground, gravity pulls them down until they reach the saturated zone, the large lakelike body of water called groundwater. This view of the earth was described in detail at the conference by the U.S. Geological Survey. (pgs. 4, 8)

"Passage of landfill leachate through sand or gravel may be expected to improve conditions so far as bacterial and organic pollution is concerned, but chemical pollution can be expected to reach the ground water...," said the U.S. Public Health Service. (pg. 109)

Bacteria are filtered out by the soil and only travel a few hundred feet; chemicals, on the other hand, can travel as far as 15,000 feet or more through soil. Evidence supporting this view was presented by the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as by university researchers. (pgs. 37, 108, 213)

Groundwater does not mix the way a turbulent surface stream mixes. In addition, the earth below ground is dark and cool, and the population of bacteria below ground is much smaller than on the surface. Consequently, contaminated groundwater tends to remain contaminated for long periods, or forever.

"Although our present information on the persistence of organic contaminants in groundwater is limited, indications are that once such materials reach the water table they may persist for long periods of time," said the U.S. Public Health Service. (pg. 54)

One outstanding example of groundwater poisoning was the subject of several presentations--the situation in Suffolk County (Long Island), New York. There, chromium wastes and municipal solid wastes had ruined water quality in the 1950s.

"Ground water is extremely vulnerable to contamination by the introduction of industrial and domestic wastes into subsurface leaching systems. This is evidenced by the numerous incidents of contamination that are constantly being brought to light by complaints and spot check water quality surveys," said the Suffolk County Health Department. (pg. 81)

"We have found from bitter experience that it is unwise to depend on any dilution factor in our ground waters. Hexavalent chromium was found to have traveled over a mile from the source of contamination and with concentrations as high as 40 ppm off the plant site," said another representative of the Suffolk County Health Department. (pg. 155)

The population of Suffolk County, Long Island produces 450,000 tons of garbage each year [in 1961]; a small part of this is incinerated and the remainder "is incorporated in raw form into landfill. Undoubtedly the decomposition of vast quantities of organic material is affecting the ground water" near each of the county's 19 landfills, said the Suffolk County health department. (pg. 75)

"[The U.S. Public Health Service] described the newcomer in the field of contaminants, organic [chemicals]. Most common offenders are gasoline, oil, detergents, and phenols. As recently as 1952, only a few states recognized organics as a problem. Now the problem is full blown, but knowledge is scarce.... A feature of organic pollution is its persistence; it has been shown to travel 15,000 feet over a period of 7 years," said the Illinois State Water Survey. (pg. 213).

"Of more immediate concern is the organic, inorganic, and bacterial pollution of ground water that can result from improperly located dumps and landfills," said the Illinois State Water Survey. (pg. 214).

The Suffolk County health department warned that industrial innovation, the creation of new chemicals, had already in 1961 overwhelmed society's ability to cope with the resulting problems. They also pointed out that regulatory authorities were not the ones discovering the damage: people using the water were discovering it the hard way--by being poisoned. After poisonings occur, then the regulators get involved; this is still true today.

"The nature of the waste introduced into our ground water changes as rapidly as new products are produced by our chemical industries. These wastes become firmly entrenched in our ground water long before we have an opportunity to evaluate their effect," said the Suffolk County Health Department. (pg. 82)

Health officials learn of groundwater contamination not by vigilant enforcement of laws, but because users complain of bad taste and odors, said the Suffolk County Health Department. (pg. 76)

"I was struck by the fact that we professionals have generally not been the ones who initially uncovered ground water contamination. More likely the revelation stemmed from citizens' complaints of taste and odor, or foam, or crop damage, or sickness," said the Illinois State Water Survey. (pg. 214)

"Many incidents of contamination resulting from waste dumping into pits or upon the surface in highly permeable sands or gravels have been reported. Some of these have required the abandonment of private wells and great personal hardship.... Where materials are dumped onto the ground, normal observation should detect the potential danger to ground waters. It is when, under the guise of 'good citizenship,' fluids are injected into the ground that detection may be delayed until actual damage has occurred," said a private consulting engineer. (pgs. 118-119)

"One thing stands out in all the reports on the subject--we are up against another crisis resulting from man's perversity in breaking the laws of nature," said a conservation consultant in 1961.

The U.S. Public Health Service's report, GROUND WATER CONTAMINATION (Cincinnati, OH: Robert A. Taft Sanitary Engineering Center, 1961) is still available from the National Technical Information Service in Springfield, VA; document No. PB 214 895; it's $25.95 plus $3.00 shipping. Phone (703) 487-4650.
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.

Descriptor terms: culpability; responsibility; liability; groundwater; water pollution; conferences; u.s. public health service; history of pollution;

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