By Kate Fried
It sounds like a story ripped from the pages of a dystopian novel, but the horrors that the residents of Toms River (formerly called Dover Township), New Jersey have experienced thanks to their private water providers are all too real.
In the 1990’s, health officials identified a terrible development among children in Toms River: a high rate of certain types of cancer. After a massive five-year study, state and federal investigators linked this horrific trend to contamination of the area’s drinking water system. Five days before the study was released, United Water Toms River (a local subsidiary of French multinational Suez Environnement) and two chemical companies agreed to make undisclosed multimillion-dollar payments to 69 families of children with cancer. Several months later, they reached another monetary settlement with dozens of other families. In total, United Water paid $12 million, after insurance reimbursements, to settle the $800 million claims for wrongful death and injury.
Over the years Toms River’s water woes persisted, particularly when United Water was fined $64,000 for failing to notify the state and the public when the water contained high levels of radioactive contaminants.
Fast-forward to the present day, and some residents of Toms River have a new problem: their drinking water has turned green. This time the responsible entity is a different private water company—New Jersey American Water. The company has identified the source of the problem—high iron levels—and claims the water is perfectly safe. But given the private water industry’s track record, it’s easy to see why some residents are still leery.
Even if the green water really poses no hazards, this further illustrates how communities often receive very bad services from private water providers. Residents of Toms River have suffered through enough without having to rely on pricey bottled water for their basic hydration and sanitation needs. Nor we can we entirely trust bottled water to be any safer than Toms River’s current supply since it is often subjected to less stringent testing than municipal water.
It’s beyond time we eliminated the gap between the haves and the have-nots when it comes to accessing water. Since many communities lack the means to provide safe, clean, affordable tap water to their residents, we must look to federal leaders to step up and fill this void.
Establishing a consistent source of federal funding for community water systems is our best bet in achieving that goal. Otherwise, more communities could be stuck with the consequences and inconsistencies of privatized water, as Toms Rivers is.