Comparative Case Studies on Water Pollution

Maywood, California and Beijing, China
Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Water pollution is a serious problem both nationally and globally. Toxins, heavy metals, and other pollutants can affect the taste, appearance, and most importantly, the safety of a community’s water supply. In the United States, in the city of Maywood, California, there are serious issues with water contamination that local governing bodies are attempting to rectify. There has been a great deal of press coverage about this community and the struggles it has had with cleaning up their water, and the local government has been transparent about legislation related to this issue. On the other hand, in the city of Beijing, the government claims to be making changes and improvements to deal with the water supply, yet very little visible progress has been made. These two case studies, while similar in that both communities are dealing with the consequences of water pollution, vary in the solutions proposed by the people and the governing bodies, how effective their respective solutions have been, and how open to discussing these issues the communities’ governing bodies have been.

In Maywood, California, there are two types of contaminants found in their water supply: manganese and trichloroethene (TCE). TCE is more hazardous, but manganese is more prevalent in the Maywood water supply, so the bulk of the information available about Maywood’s water pollution problem focuses on manganese pollution. TCE was only found in one of the three water systems analyzed in a 2010 study, while manganese was found in high concentrations in wells from all three water systems analyzed in this study (GeoTrans, Inc. 2010). TCE has a variety of uses, but unfortunately for the people of Maywood, none of those uses include being a safe additive to water. TCE is used to dissolve greasy, oily substances, particularly substances built up on machinery. It is also found in cleaners for upholstery, paint removers, glues, and correction fluid. If it is not disposed of properly, it can easily get into water supplies. In studies performed on rodents, TCE was shown to have more severe effects if ingested rather than inhaled, which is why its presence in a water supply is such a serious problem. Symptoms of TCE exposure include a euphoric high much like what one would experience after taking drugs, numbness in the facial muscles and tissue, lethargy, and weakness. There have also been studies that suggest possible links between TCE and an increased risk of miscarriages, as well as an increased risk of cancer. However, it is important to note that correlation does not imply causation, and therefore it cannot be assumed that TCE is the only reason for these findings. There may be complicating factors aside from TCE that are affecting the rates of cancer and miscarriages (United State Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], 2000). Manganese, on the other hand, mostly leads to unpleasant aesthetic qualities in the water, such as a brown tint that can stain clothes. Manganese is only dangerous in large quantities, but the aesthetic effect it has on water certainly makes the water unpleasant to use and consume. This is certainly not the worst water-related problem to have, but it still is an issue of concern for the people in the community.

According to the City of Maywood Water Quality Assessment, TCE was found in only 1 of 3 water suppliers’ water supplies. However, the amount of TCE was found to be under the allowed level of 5, but it occasionally came very close to being 5. Despite the fact that TCE has come close to being a health hazard and despite the fact that much of the problem with manganese involves the way it affects the way the water looks, much of the focus has been on the overabundance of manganese in the water supply (GeoTrans, Inc. 2010).  It seems that the more pressing issue in this community is related to aesthetics, rather than public health (Becerra, 2013).

There are several stakeholders in this issue, such as politicians, business owners, activists, and community members. Mayor Oscar Magana dealt with having brown water when he was just a teen living in the community. Since he sympathizes with the community that is still facing the challenges he faced as a teen, the issue of water pollution has remained an important area of concern for him. Activists have also taken an interest in the water pollution in Maywood. Activists worked with a member of Del Amo Action Committee, Cynthia Babich, in order to make progress with this issue. As a group, they were able to convince members of a governmental department, called the Department of Toxic Substances Control, to test their water for manganese. This testing led to the discovery of high, but still legal, amounts of TCE in Maywood’s water supply. Roger Kintz and Rick Fears, both of whom work in the Department of Toxic Substances Control, are working to improve the situation. In 2010, several solutions were proposed to rectify the overabundance of manganese in the water supply (Becerra, 2013).  Three different water supply companies proposed solutions to this issue. The first company suggested mixing water with high concentrations of manganese with water that has little or no manganese, which is more of a short-term solution. This company also proposed solutions with longer-lasting effects including processing the water to take out the manganese or building brand-new or modifying older wells so that less manganese gets into the water in the first place. The second company suggested mixing water with high and low manganese levels as well, but chose different locations than the first. The long-term solution, which would cost one million dollars or more, was to run a pipe from a well to their treatment site in order to process the water and remove the manganese. The third and final company’s proposal includes, yet again, blending the water to lower the concentration of contaminants, but they focused on TCE rather than manganese. They also suggest costly additions to the water system such as a facility to remove TCE from the water, replacing the water system entirely with components that do not produce TCE, or blocking TCE-contaminated sections of the water system to prevent TCE from getting into the water. Despite the cost of $250,000-$1.5 million, these solutions seem to be the most sensible, and the most focused on what should be the more pressing issue.(GeoTrans, Inc. 2010) Cost could become a complicating factor, though. It is important for the decision-makers in this community to budget accordingly so that this issue can be resolved without causing financial problems. (Becerra, 2013) Another complicating factor is that other contaminants could get in the water if these structures are not made correctly, but so far, these solutions are being implemented correctly and the situations are showing improvement. (GeoTrans, Inc. 2010; Becerra, 2013)

In contrast to Maywood’s relatively minor issues with discolored water and potentially dangerous chemicals in the water, the people of Beijing, China are dealing with much worse pollutions, and more severe consequences because of this pollution. For example, a canal called the North Canal, was found to have pollution levels that are “nearly 95 times higher than what is deemed safe.” Another water issue is the lack of sewage treatment plants in nearly half of Beijing, which has resulted in severe fecal contamination in many bodies of water. (Shuang, 2013).  Other water pollutants include chemical runoff from farming, heavy metals, and in a particularly disturbing instance, dead pigs (Tan, 2014).

Beijing is not the only city in China facing serious problems as the result of water contamination. Cities known as “cancer villages” are popping up all over China. As the name suggests, these are cities, which, due to water contamination, have seen a major increase in cancer deaths and diagnoses over the last few decades (Shuang, 2013). Another major health concern as a result of Beijing’s water pollution is diseases that lead to severe diarrhea. These types of diseases can lead to rapid dehydration, particularly in children. While it is important that all people have access to clean water, it is particularly important that children have access to clean water in order to facilitate development and to avoid potentially life-threatening diarrheal illnesses (Carlton et al., 2012).

The Chinese government has proposed several potential solutions to the pollution problem. Unfortunately, the primary source documents that outline the specific measures to be taken regarding this issue are not available to the general public, or at least not at Spring Hill. The security settings on our server prevented me from accessing a document that outlines the Chinese government’s specific plans to deal with this issue, but I was able to find a secondary source that summarizes the initiatives taken to tackle this issue. The Chinese government has been dealing with environmental issues such as water pollution for about thirty years. It seems odd that so little progress seems to have been made in all that time. Various initiatives have been taken over the years in order to deal with this issue, each one spanning five years. The most recent one deals with the pollution issues by continually testing the polluted water and keeping track of the health of the citizens. Overseeing what the water companies are doing is a very important step for the Chinese government to take because “28% of municipal plants and 53% of private plants were not complying with water quality monitoring requirements. Over 16% of water samples did not meet drinking water standards, most often on account of microbial parameters” (Carlton et al., 2012).

Various measures are being discussed to deal with the widespread dangerous pollution in Beijing and other parts of China, which the activist group China Water Risk outlined on their website. There are several legislative changes in the works to deter polluters. There will be harsher punishments for people who pollute. There will be stricter water safety standards for industries and businesses that contribute the most to the pollution, such as tanners and ceramic makers. A new bill is also being voted on that provides free water for farmers and outlines specific water safety guidelines for people in agricultural fields. These guidelines will include topics such as how to dispose of animal carcasses. One would hope this would prevent future incidents involving dead pigs in Chinese water supplies.  In terms of steps that affect all citizens, rather than just those in agricultural fields, environmental reports, such as water quality reports, will be available to the public. This is a very important step, because it will allow Chinese citizens to educate themselves about the issues surrounding water safety and will allow them to make informed decisions about how to dispose of human and agricultural waste without contaminating the water. Another important step in providing safe water for all people is allocating more funds to water treatment efforts. There will also be standardized water treatment guidelines so that everyone in Beijing and other areas in China will have equal access to potable water. Despite these proposed changes, it will be a long time before the decisions are made final (Tan, 2014).

The main basis for comparison of these two cases involves the fact that these cases are both modern examples of the dangers of water pollution. The most illuminating aspects of these cases can be found in how they differ. There are socioeconomic and political aspects that affect both the causes of the water pollution and the responses to the pollution. In Maywood, clearly the pollution problem is much less significant than the pollution in Beijing. Maywood’s pollution is predominantly manganese, which is causing mostly aesthetic issues with the water. It seems to be a rather clear statement of their socioeconomic status if their biggest problem is stained clothing and brown water. Their priorities may not be in quite the right order. While TCE is not yet at a life-threatening level in the Maywood water supply, the levels of TCE have been very close to dangerous levels. It seems that reducing the levels of TCE to even lower, safer levels might be a more pressing issue than discoloration that could be filtered out relatively easily. However, Maywood legislation and citizens of Maywood disagree. On the other hand, China is facing significantly worse problems than Maywood. A variety of contaminants have been found in Chinese water, from agricultural runoff, to fecal matter, to the infamous, aforementioned dead pigs. (Tan, 2014). Rather than dealing with discolored clothing, the people of Beijing and other areas in China are dealing with water that has the potential to make them very sick, as made evident by the surge in cancer diagnoses. There is a clear difference in how the governing bodies of Maywood and Beijing are dealing with their water issues. In Maywood, the citizens have a voice in town hall meetings, grassroots movements, government jobs, and in the newspapers. In return, government offices are being transparent about what they are doing to fix the issues they are facing, and progress has been made (Becerra, 2013).  On the other hand, it is very difficult to find specific plans outlined by the Chinese government about how to deal with the water issues, and it is therefore difficult to tell if notable progress has been made and if they are keeping up with their end of the bargain. This points to a difference in governmental practices and their willingness to protect their citizens (Tan, 2014).

Overall, the water pollution in Maywood and the water pollution in Beijing have very different causes and very different solutions. As such, the approaches taken by their respective governing bodies are very different as well. If these solutions are not effective enough, it would be interesting to see if any of the solutions that Fr. Chamberlain discussed in his presentations might be potential solutions to aid in the water pollution issues these areas are experiencing. Specifically, Arborloos might be a useful means of prevent further fecal contamination in China’s water supply. Also, bone and ceramic filters could help with chemical and heavy metal pollution. PUR water packets could be beneficial in both Beijing and Maywood (Chamberlain, 2014). Clean water is a vital, universal human right. In time, maybe it will become a right that is attainable for the people of Beijing, Maywood, and other communities dealing with water pollution.