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Guest Commentary: La. water quality faces big threats


February 09, 2014

Water is the source of all life on Earth. This is a universally accepted and long validated fact of science.

Without fresh water, we could not survive. We need safe water to drink, to grow the food we need to eat, and to clean to protect ourselves from disease and illness.

But our access to safe water we need to survive is more threatened with each passing day.

The recent disaster in West Virginia should be a thunderous wake-up call to people everywhere. If we do not act to protect our water from industrial and chemical contamination, millions more Americans could face more than the anxious inconveniences the good people of West Virginia endured last month.

Many of our challenges in sustaining access to safe water begin with the exemptions and loopholes in the federal Clean Water Act. Toxic pollutants are allowed to be discharged into our waterways. Ground water resources are contaminated in the name of energy development. Nutrients from agricultural fields run off during storm water events and pollute our rivers and streams.

In Louisiana, we have cursed ourselves with among the most lax standards in the industrialized world to protect our supplies of clean, safe water. It is no wonder that other states ship tens of thousands of tons of their toxic industrial waste every year to Louisiana to be carelessly stored, and disposed of virtually unregulated and unmonitored, despoiling the bounty of nature we have been blessed with.

It’s bad enough that we import toxic wastes from other states, threatening our health and safety, with no appreciable benefit to our economy. But in the Pelican State, our precious water supplies face a wide range of other dangerous threats: saltwater intrusion due to coastal erosion and industrial depletion of our aquifers; pollution from more than 6,000 abandoned and orphaned oil and gas wells; wastes from injection wells and unregulated salt domes and underground caverns storing chemicals.

Failure to effectively regulate industry has virtually ruined dozens of Louisiana communities already, including Grand Bois, Bayou Corne, Grand Bayou and Lake Peigneur.

Our lack of regulation is so senseless that Louisiana does not even consider oil field wastes as hazardous to our supply of water.

The insufficient regulation of these threats essentially tells us, “Don’t worry, be happy …” The undisputed science tells us that the toxic assaults on our safe water can kill our crops, poison our livestock and threaten our health and ultimately the lives of our children and grandchildren.

While industry provides jobs and business to our state, those jobs and businesses can’t be sustained in the coming decades if we destroy our supply of safe water. And if we continue to be the toxic dump for other states, we won’t be able to attract good jobs and new enterprises to our state.

For sure, these counterproductive policies and failed regulatory practices threaten our unique and cherished way of life. Every day where we fish and hunt, where we harvest seafood and crops, we face assault from pollution. And our access to safe water becomes more precarious.

If we don’t muster the willful determination and policy consensus to come up with a balanced and sustainable solution to address the threats to our access to safe water, we may never recover.

Our clean, safe drinking water supply has an expiration date because of our failure to regulate industry. Now is the time for people to act, and demand that their legislators pass laws that regulate these threats to our safe water, and for the courts to enforce these laws. Our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren depend on it.

Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré (U.S. Army, retired) was commander of Joint Task Force Katrina. He is the author of “Survival: How a Culture of Preparedness Can Save You and Your Family from Disasters” and “Leadership in the New Normal.” Honoré is on Twitter, @LTGRusselHonore, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/russel.honore.3.