Up to that time the number of contaminants was reasonable, but then in 1986, Congress actually mandated that EPA add 25 new contaminants every three years, regardless of the cost to remove these constituents from water. The 1996 amendment added more to the equation.
The 1996 amendment incorporated a cost-benefit rationale. In California there are a number of lawsuits against water utilities for providing water that is contaminated. The question is to what degree the contaminants are present. Even though all standards have been met since they were put in place, some customers have been prompted by attorneys to file lawsuits against the AWC and other water utilities in California.
The AWC has the distinction of serving in many parts of the state and has 300 production wells of its own. It pumps from contaminated groundwater sources, and treatment facilities remove those constituents. However, there are 22 lawsuits against the company. A number of county water systems and other private water companies have been sued as well.
The issue brought to court by the company was whether the court or the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) should regulate these standards. What level of treatment should be provided to make sure that people have a safe, good feeling about drinking their tap water?
The AWC has spent in excess of $7 million to date to defend itself against these lawsuits. The PUC conducted an investigation into the lawsuits, and AWC had to go back into its records for 25 years to provide the PUC with all the analyses of water distribution and treatment plant samples, in excess of 2 million samples. In those samples, contaminants were outside the range of the maximum contaminant level only 16 times. Therefore, the PUC found AWC to be in compliance with the law. In the Hartwell decision, the Supreme Court upheld the jurisdiction of the PUC over private utilities. The decision left all the public agencies in the lawsuit, but pulled the private agencies out. Only if plaintiffs can prove that EPA standards were violated can private companies be sued in court.
The fairness of imposing these kinds of costs on utilities and their customers has to be assessed, and the legislators, not the courts, should be urged to address these issues of responsibility. The companies are all also responsible when it comes to providing good-quality, sustainable water at affordable prices.
Figure 8.2, although outdated, shows the number of contaminants increasing and the research investment trailing downward rather than upward. Our legislators should be asked to authorize more investment in the research side of the water utility industry. The other alternative is to label the product to caution that it may be harmful to your health (see Figure 8.3).
More than 2 million people, mostly children, die every year due to water-related diseases. More than 6,000 people die each day from waterborne disease or lack of water; put into perspective, half of that number died in the September 11, 2001, tragedy in New York.