Indianapolis’ drinking water may be considered healthy at the moment, according to federal standards, but does that mean it is? Six of the past 12 quarterly reports published by Environment Working Group (EWG) on Citizen Energy Group’s drinking water ruled that the water was noncompliant with federal guidelines. According to the report from March 2017, in which Citizen’s Water passed, the water still contained eight cancer-causing contaminants, including arsenic.
Carlton Waterhouse, professor and director of the Environmental, Energy and Natural Resources Law Program at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law, says that just because Indianapolis’ drinking water is up to standards doesn’t mean those standards have citizens’ best health in mind.
“Complying with the law is meeting the minimum health-based standard,” Waterhouse said. “Those other standards that are directly health-related I think are more important for us to make sure we have good and healthy drinking water — as healthy as humanly possible, not as safe as we can get away with. As long as there’s compliance with the law, not as safe as humanly possible — I’m sure no one who wants to fly on an airplane would take that attitude.”
In February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned residents of East Chicago, Indiana, of the possibility that their drinking water contained high levels of lead. Gov. Eric Holcomb granted a disaster declaration for the city to address their water contamination issues. Waterhouse believes more needs to be done than what is legally obligated in order to keep Indianapolis from going down this track.
“The threat we face is that we’re like East Chicago a few years ago, before the sampling was done, where they found the high lead levels,” Waterhouse said. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t have the problem; it just means that we aren’t aware of the problem, just like they weren’t aware of the problem until somebody actually did some sampling and found it.”
Denise Abdul-Rahman, environmental and climate justice chair of NAACP Indiana, echoes Waterhouse’s sentiment regarding the seriousness of this issue and how it is viewed on a political level. She says President Donald Trump’s decision to decrease the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget from $8 billion to $5 billion has only further hurt East Chicago and Indianapolis.
“Indianapolis, Riverside area and Martindale-Brightwood and East Chicago, these communities are defined as environmental justice communities,” Abdul-Rahman wrote in an email to the Indianapolis Recorder. “There will need to be more local grassroots organizations, like Kheprw Institute. Because of the slashed EPA budgets, these communities will have to fend for themselves.”
“The concern is the contamination, such as vinyl chloride and the health impacts associated, it is impacting the raw groundwater at Riverside and White River well field. The conversations initially held, indicate that the raw ground water exceeds 15 ppb (parts per billion), which exceeds the safe drinking levels. However, the finished water is considered safe to drink according to IDEM (Indiana Department of Environmental Management) and Citizen’s Water.”
Waterhouse puts the onus on political authorities to act.
“That is a political policy-based decision to value the economic benefit of these practices without more strict regulations over the health of the people who are limited to drinking water from a tap because they can’t afford to get water from other sources,” Waterhouse said. “It is frustrating. It is disappointing. To some degree it is a reflection of the state we live in and what the values are of the people who have been elected. I think there has to be attention to the political process. People have to realize that your vote impacts your health.”
Denise Abdul-Rahman, NAACP Indiana