Cover Story: Unsafe Environment

How the Bush administration imperils local health

Oct 6, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Geoff Raker


At the same time that Jamie Turner found feces in Mill Creek, which runs past her house in Springfield Township, her 1-year-old daughter Lauren got very sick. Six months later the child is just beginning to emerge from what Jamie and doctors best describe as a fog.

When she first called the Hamilton County Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) about the fecal matter, she says employees told her she was just looking at stagnant water. Jamie Turner has smelled sewage in the Mill Creek on and off for the 28 years she's lived there, but she'd never seen feces so clearly.

She finally called Bruce Smith, an environmental specialist with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA), who called it something else: a "sewage creek." MSD then told her a contractor had accidentally spilled a little sewage while setting up a pump. But Smith saw it differently.

"He believed it was a deliberate, illicit discharge of sewage, that there were pumps being run by contractors," Turner says. "They literally just let it flow right into the creek."

The first year of her life, Lauren had been a healthy child, but around this time started whining and crying a lot.

She was feverish and congested.

"Bruce, how bad is this?" she asked Smith when he first came to look at the creek. "My daughter's sick. I have to take her to the doctor tomorrow."

He couldn't tell her if anything was airborne, but said yes, if her daughter came into contact with the creek, she could get ill.

The pediatrician diagnosed Lauren with hand, foot and mouth virus. People often get it from the swimming pools that have been visited by kids with dirty diapers or diarrhea.

"My daughter hasn't been in a swimming pool, but there has been a sewage leak," she told the doctor.

He told her fecal matter causes the virus. The effects of hand, foot and mouth virus are so painful that doctors put the infant on codeine as well as a decongestant. Lauren had liquid blisters in her throat and on her hands.

Soon afterward her mother started having "real bad respiratory distress" and found blisters on her legs; she, too, had hand, foot and mouth virus.

Hers cleared up, but Lauren hasn't been the same since. The once-vocal child stopped making noise. She didn't respond to stimuli. She wouldn't acknowledge anyone but her mother, who lost her job because she was out so often to take care of Lauren.

The Mill Creek watershed feeds into Winton Woods Lake. People swim, fish and boat there; Jamie Turner used to rollerblade around that lake, but no more.

"My daughter does not play in the front yard," she says. "We will go to Mount Healthy Park. We do not go to Winton Woods."

That's the best solution she can come up with. But Mill Creek runs right past a nearby school.

"Kids are in that creek every day," she says. "This is Mill Creek watershed and there's signs everywhere saying we're trying to keep our waters clean and let's protect the environment — and here we are dumping raw sewage right into the creek."

For the Turners, the relative abstraction of environmental policy suddenly turned into a life-and-death matter. It's in personal, individual ways that the Bush administration's environmental policies play out — with every breath Cincinnatians take, the fish we catch and eat and the sewers most of us prefer not to think about.

Defining pollution away
Get a load of this: Every year MSD discharges 75 million gallons of raw sewage into local waterways ­- enough to fill Coney Island's Sunlight Pool 20 times over, according to the Sierra Club.

Those discharges are called "sanitary sewer overflows," though sanitary is exactly what they're not. They're not just making things unpleasant for fish. That raw sewage is flooding basements throughout Hamilton County. In the past five years, more than 12,000 residents have complained to MSD about sewage in their basements, according to MSD reports studied by the Sierra Club.

Yet the Bush administration recently proposed cutting $500 million from federal funding for municipal sewer districts — a reduction of almost one-third — for fiscal year 2004, according to the Sierra Club. That was federal money that cash-strapped municipal entities like MSD just don't have, especially since the U.S. EPA, OEPA and the Sierra Club sued Hamilton County, the city of Cincinnati and MSD over illegal discharges in 2002. That led to a consent decree approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.

But the Sierra Club's lawyer, David Altman, says the group isn't at all satisfied by the decree.

"This decree allows far too many years to go by and has too many aspects to it that allow the deadlines to be extended and the waters to be degraded," he says.

MSD gets 18 or 19 years of leeway, according to Katie Danko, sewer specialist for the Sierra Club. Flexibility might be good; but loopholes and vague language can impede a solution to a serious health problem.

"I could say you've got to clean up Chernobyl, but you have 100 years to do it," Altman says.

Luckily for Hamilton County residents, a discerning U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel added oversight and specifics, saying he could not "countenance undue delay," according to Altman. The judge also ordered that victims be reimbursed for ruined property.

"I don't think (MSD is) making it known to residents, actually, that they can file claims for lost property value," Danko says.

Altman says the consent decree will have effects far beyond Hamilton County. Other municipalities nationwide will now model similar agreements on it.

He compares MSD to a child of divorced parents: the city and the county each think MSD is safely playing in the other's yard. So MSD has been free to get in plenty of trouble.

"Then they use demagoguery at the local level, when the Republicans — actually, everybody — says, 'Well, we can't afford to tax our citizens,' when in fact the big picture is that we have 30 years of flat-out neglect of the law," Altman says.

Overflows of raw sewage are one thing, but even if MSD manages to transport all of the county's sewage without dumping it where it's not supposed to be, there's still the issue of what constitutes sewage treatment.

Well, there's two ways to reduce pollution, Altman points out. One is to deal with the pollution itself.

"The other way is to say that the standards that we call pollution should be elevated so that we define it out of existence," he says.

There are two stages of sewage treatment under the Clean Water Act. First, primary treatment helps remove solids in wastewater. Secondary treatment uses bacteria to remove up to 90 percent of pollutants.

The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that in November 2003 the Bush administration supported allowing sewage treatment plants to blend primary, partially treated sewage with secondary, fully treated sewage. The mess can be discharged into waterways during heavy rain and floods. This directly violates the Clean Water Act, which requires secondary treatment of sewage.

The OEPA is considering an application to allow this blending in MSD's Sycamore Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Montgomery, Danko says.

'Ohio is a lab'
Cincinnati recently acquired a distinction it could do without, according to Emily Figdor, a clean air advocate for the Ohio Public Interest Research Group. On Sept. 23 she released the report "Danger in the Air: Unhealthy Levels of Air Pollution in 2003."

"Cincinnati made the Top 20 list that no city wants to make," she said. "The Cincinnati-Middletown metropolitan area experienced the 11th highest level of year-round soot pollution among major U.S. cities in 2003."

Soot is not the same as smog. Soot, also called particulate matter, is basically pieces of junk less than the diameter of a strand of human hair. Soot particles fly in the air, lodge in the lungs if they're small or in the nose and throat if they're larger. Beyond the obvious irritation, soot can clog arteries and exacerbate all kinds of breathing problems or create new ones.

Soot comes mostly from dirty coal-fired power plants such as Beckjord, Zimmer and Miami Fort. Cinergy operates all three.

Smog, on the other hand, is ground-level ozone. Up, it's good; down, it's bad. The ozone layer filters out ultraviolet rays that cause skin cancer, cataracts and crop damage. But on the ground, ozone creates severe respiratory problems. Cincinnati's smog triggers 57,000 asthma attacks a year, according to the Ohio Public Interest Research Group.

Smog comes from sunlight hitting chemicals in the air, mostly hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, which react to form ozone. Those chemicals come from incomplete combustion of fossil fuel such as that which occurs in cars, lawn mowers, oil-based paint fumes, dry cleaning and older coal-fired power plants.

It's a problem the nation over, but Cinergy almost had to fork over a $1.4 billion settlement for avoiding a provision of the federal Clean Air Act called "new source review."

New source review essentially requires power facilities built before the Clean Air Act to comply with environmental regulations when they expand.

Cinergy and the United States Department of Justice arrived at a tentative settlement in 2000. At that time, it was the largest such settlement ever. But since Bush came into office, his administration has tried to undermine new source review, according to widely cited investigative work by Bruce Barcott in the April 4 edition of The New York Times Magazine. The article's title sums up the findings: "Up in Smoke: The Bush Administration, the Big Power Companies and the Undoing of 30 Years of Clean-Air Policy."

Cinergy — whose CEO Jim Rogers is a pioneer for the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, meaning that he raises more than $100,000 — decided this year to fight the settlement in court.

"Mr. Rogers is certainly allowed as a citizen of the United States to support whatever candidate he wants," says Cinergy spokeswoman Kathy Meinke.

Cinergy's trial is scheduled for next year, she says.

"We operate all our plants within EPA permits," Meinke says. "We've expended $1.7 billion in pollution control since 1990."

During the same period Cinergy reduced emissions of sulfur dioxide by 50 percent and nitrogen oxides by 45 percent, according to Meinke.

Cinergy just announced that it plans to spend another $2 billion on environmental projects. That's because it came time to pay the piper, says Altman, the environmental lawyer. Years of failing to abide by environmental laws — hence the proposed $1.4 billion settlement — leaves Cinergy with a lot of catching up to do.

When other utilities were complying with regulations, Cinergy didn't, Altman says.

"We were talking about putting a taller stack on so we could shift this stuff more to the east," he says. "That was how we got into this mess, and now we are continuing to get out of it."

On the state level, Ohio just renewed an environmental audit law that allows companies to keep secret the information they've learned about their effect on the environment, Altman says.

"The deal was, if you can keep your dirty environmental mess a secret, you're more likely to clean it up," he says.

Ohio, which dominates the chemical industry along with Texas, already took that direction a while back.

"Ohio is sort of a lab for what we're going to be seeing on a federal level among those who want to do favors, largely for the chemical industry," Altman says.

But the federal government under Bush isn't far behind.

"Think of it," Altman says. "There's two strands of self-defense to protect the average citizen from environmental problems — one is state and one is federal."

Under Bush, OEPA's powers, already lacking muscle at the state level have eroded "in the most radical way, again headed toward self-evaluation," according to Altman.

EPA employees who object find themselves reassigned, says Dr. George Leikauf, a professor of environmental health at the UC College of Medicine.

OEPA is now considering rolling back a statewide air pollution control that requires companies to obtain permits for their emissions, according to Karen Arnett of the Environmental Community Organization. OEPA says it'll make it more efficient.

Members of the Permit Processing Efficiency Committee that examined the proposal had more than organizational efficiency in mind, Arnett says. The committee was composed solely of industry and trade groups, and 10 of the 40 members were registered lobbyists.

"Neither the public nor the environmental experts were invited to be part of this," Arnett says.

The rule changes are in a public comment period required by law through Oct. 13.

Surviving childhood
Cincinnati got off easy this year, according to Figdor and Glen Brand, Midwest representative for Sierra Club. There were no local smog alerts this summer only because it was unusually wet and cool.

They also say a Clean Power Act, supported by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, would strengthen the Clean Air Act — rather than weaken it, as Bush administration policies seek to do.

Not only does air pollution exacerbate breathing problems, but a recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that pollution causes them, according to Dr. William Hardie, a pediatric pulmonologist for Children's Hospital.

He said the landmark study clearly shows that poor air quality affects children who are healthy, as well those born with lung problems such as asthma or cystic fibrosis.

"It demonstrated very convincingly that healthy children who are exposed continuously to a high degree of air pollution have significantly lower lung function when they're done with their childhood than those kids who are raised in the cleaner air," Hardie says.

Raising a child with a respiratory illness has a profound impact on families. A couple years ago Marti Sinclair of Springfield Township brought medical bills to show the U.S. EPA the financial effect of her son's severe asthma. The best insurance in the world will still leave consumers with multiple co-payments, she pointed out.

"When you have an asthmatic child you can be called any time because of frequent illnesses, so it limits your career options," Sinclair says. "There's not many jobs where you can call in at 8 a.m. and say, 'I won't be here again today.' "

That's why Sinclair, who has a master's degree in zoology, is a full-time substitute teacher even though her son's now in college.

"I think that's less than what I could have accomplished if I hadn't had my first responsibility to attend to my son's severe health problems," she says. "So I feel like a success in life because he made it through childhood. That's a different kind of expectation than parents should be having."

She says her feelings about the Bush administration's environmental policies have moved past anger to a profound sense of grief.

"In some cases you think, well, maybe certain things could be recoverable, but when you know that asthmatic children die and mercury-contaminated infants have damaged nervous systems, these aren't things that are recoverable," she says. "These are profound losses."

Toxic catch
Mercury is another chemical released by dirty coal-fired power plants. Before the days of digital technology, parents warned against broken thermometers for good reason: It's a powerful, potentially deadly neurological toxin. The Clean Air Act was cleaning up mercury emissions to the tune of 90 percent cleaner within this decade. But the Bush administration's proposed Clear Skies Initiative allows the release of three times more mercury and a decade longer to comply.

Mercury harms fetal development and cognitive growth. It affects learning motor skills, memory and other neurological functions. During a press conference in April, Dr. Kim Dietrick, a professor of environmental health and pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, stressed the seriousness of mercury exposure.

"I want to stress that this is no theoretical proposition," she said. "What I say today is based on hard data that associate lower level exposure to mercury with deficits in skills of the eye and hand, memory and language — in other words, the very cornerstones of human learning."

Released into the air, mercury finds its way into waterways, where it's absorbed by fish. The bigger the fish, and the more mercury-contaminated little fish it's eaten, the higher the concentration of mercury. That's why women of childbearing age and children are no longer supposed to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish.

Nicole Gunderman of Clifton learned about the dangers of mercury when she was pregnant with her son Owen, age 2, so she stopped eating fish during her pregnancy. Then she found out that some vaccines for children contain mercury as a preservative. She requested vaccines without mercury.

Gunderman still won't feed her son any fish at all.

"And I do think he could benefit from some of the other nutritional properties in fish — Omega-6, Omega-3, all the good nutritional benefits of eating fish and how fish are supposed to be these great healthy things," Gunderman says.

But mercury affects small bodies much more than larger bodies.

"And when you weigh 30 pounds, it makes a big difference," she says.

Thirty-pound children and women of childbearing age won't safely eat fish any time soon.

"It's not going away," Leikauf says. "That mercury that's in that water is not going to just all the sudden be cleaned up."

Environmentalists hoped that nature and their own best efforts to remove other toxins would take care of the mercury in water, too. But they're finding it's just the opposite.

"All the evidence says it's going in the reverse order," Leikauf says. "As we clean the lakes up, as we take the all the toxins out, if we put out tons of poisons, some of the bacteria that grow in those poisons tended to fix the mercury a little better. When you clarify a lake, which you have to do, the mercury is released and the fish become more contaminated."

Gunderman says her friends are surprised when she shares what she knows — surprised, and not especially overjoyed to have been brought into the loop.

"It's not that they don't believe, it's just that they're not looking for it because ignorance is a much more comfortable place," she says.

Gunderman still doesn't eat shark, swordfish or canned tuna.

"I know I should restrict it even more," she says.

There's much else to talk about. For instance, the Bush administration's "Healthy Forests" initiative essentially embraces logging as a solution to forest fires.

Bush has refused to support the "polluter pays" principle behind Superfund, which requires corporations to fund the cleanup of abandoned toxic waste sites. Instead, the bill for cleanup goes to taxpayers.

No one seems to be disputing the damning numbers. MSD and the local and state Bush campaigns didn't return calls for comment. The Sierra Club reports that MSD even estimates that three times as many Hamilton County residents find sewage in their homes as complain to MSD.

Meanwhile, study after study measuring the environmental impact of various policies gets published in peer-reviewed journals. Ignorance may be bliss, but a lot of what's happening in our air and water and food is hurting and killing us, will damage our children and irreparably change the environment in which we live. ©