Hidden Groundwater Pollution Problem Runs Deep

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, December 11, 2000 (ENS) - Toxic chemicals are contaminating groundwater on every inhabited continent, endangering the world's most valuable supplies of freshwater, reports a new study from the Worldwatch Institute. This first global survey of groundwater pollution shows that a toxic brew of pesticides, nitrogen fertilizers, industrial chemicals and heavy metals is fouling groundwater everywhere.

The study by the Washington, DC based Worldwatch Institute also found that the damage is often worst in the very places where people most need water.

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The Worldwatch Institute's Payal Sampat warns that pollution could make some groundwater undrinkable (Photo courtesy Worldwatch Institute)
"Groundwater contamination is an irreversible act that will deprive future generations of one of life's basic resources," said Payal Sampat, author of "Deep Trouble: The Hidden Threat of Groundwater Pollution."

"In the next 50 years, an additional three billion people are expected to inhabit the Earth, creating even more demand for water for drinking, irrigation and industry. But we're polluting our cheapest and most easily accessible supply of water," Sampat said. "Most groundwater is still pristine, but unless we take immediate action, clean groundwater will not be there when we need it."

Sampat's report details a flood of polluted waters:

Groundwater is an essential resource for sustaining civilization, Sampat noted. About 97 percent of the planet's liquid freshwater is stored in underground aquifers.

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Waste disposal sites, like the Lowry Landfill in Denver, Colorado, can leak liquid wastes into groundwater, as seen in this photo from the 1970s. (Two photos courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)
Nearly one third of all humanity relies almost exclusively on groundwater for drinking, including the residents of some of the largest cities in the developing world, such as Jakarta, Dhaka, Lima and Mexico City. Almost 99 percent of the rural U.S. population, and 80 percent of India's villagers, depend on groundwater for drinking.

Groundwater irrigates some of the world's most productive cropland. More than half of irrigated farmland in India, and 43 percent in the United States, are watered by groundwater. Irrigation already accounts for about two thirds of water use worldwide.

As rivers and lakes are dammed, dried up, or polluted, and as food demand grows in the next 50 years, farmers will become increasingly dependent on groundwater for irrigation, Sampat predicts.

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Aging underground storage tanks can leak gasoline and other contaminants into groundwater
Groundwater also plays a key ecological role by replenishing rivers, streams and wetlands. It provides much of the flow for the Mississippi, the Niger, the Yangtze and many other great rivers - some of which would otherwise not run year round.

Groundwater contamination is widespread in industrialized countries like the United States:

"One of the most disturbing aspects of the problem is that groundwater pollution is essentially permanent," said Sampat.

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Underground injection wells, like this one in Florida, are often used to pump contaminants underground for disposal (Photo courtesy University of Southern Florida)
Water recycles very slowly underground, too slowly to flush out or dilute toxic chemicals. Water that enters an aquifer remains there for an average of 1,400 years, compared to only 16 days for rivers.

Thus Londoners, for example, may be drinking water that fell as rain as long ago as the last ice age.

The urgency of preventing groundwater contamination is highlighted by the costs of cleanup efforts. Water utilities in the midwestern United States, a region that is highly dependent on groundwater, spend $400 million each year to treat water for just one chemical, the pesticide atrazine.

The U.S. National Research Council estimates that the costs of cleaning up the known 300,000 to 400,000 heavily contaminated sites where groundwater is polluted could be as high as U.S. $1 trillion over the next 30 years alone.

"Patchwork, end of pipe solutions are simply not enough," said Sampat. "To preserve this valuable resource, we need to make systematic changes in the way we grow our food, manufacture goods and dispose of waste."

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In California's Sacramento Valley, water pumped from underground aquifers is used for everything from agricultural irrigation to drinking water (Photo courtesy California Department of Water Resources)
The report proposes retooling industrial agriculture to reduce farm runoff, a leading source of groundwater pollution. The EPA estimates that cutting agricultural pollution could eliminate the need for at least U.S. $15 billion worth of additional advanced water treatment facilities.

Farmers from Indonesia to Kenya are learning how to use less chemicals while boosting yields. Since 1998, all the farmers in China's Yunnan Province have eliminated their use of fungicides, while doubling rice yields, by planting more diverse varieties of the grain.

Water utilities in Germany now pay farmers to switch to organic operations because it costs less than removing farm chemicals from water supplies.

Companies also need to take greater responsibility for their toxic discharges. Sixty percent of the most hazardous liquid waste in the United States - 34 billion liters (about nine billion gallons) per year of solvents, heavy metals and radioactive materials - is injected directly into deep groundwater via thousands of "injection wells."

Although the EPA requires that these effluents be injected below the deepest source of drinking water, some have entered underground water supplies in Florida, Texas, Ohio and Oklahoma.

Manufacturers can reduce groundwater pollution by reusing materials and chemicals, keeping them out of landfills and thereby reducing leakages from landfills. Companies are building "industrial symbiosis" parks in which the unusable wastes from one firm become the input for another.

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At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the U.S., researchers are testing a solar detoxification process that can clean groundwater of a range of contaminants, including solvents, pesticides, wood preservatives, dyes and fuels (Photo by Warren Gretz, courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Such waste exchanges help an industrial park in Kalundborg, Denmark, to keep more than 1.3 million tons of effluent out of landfills and septic systems each year, the report notes.

Manufacturers can also switch to less toxic alternatives. In Sweden, where chlorinated solvents are being entirely phased out by the end of 2000, some firms already report economic savings from switching to water based solvents derived from biochemical sources such as citrus fruits, corn, soybeans, and lactic acid.

Sampat calls on governments to find ways to encourage reductions or replacement of toxic chemicals. One such tool is fiscal policy. Pollution taxes in the Netherlands, for example, have helped the country slash discharges of heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic into waterways by up to 99 percent between 1976 and the mid-1990s.

The full report is available for purchase at: http://www.worldwatch.org