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Brown tap water shouldn’t be legal

By Han Zhang, 2013 Duke Stanback Intern, Clean Water for NC
& Katie Hicks, Assistant Director, Clean Water for NC

Photo of Han Zhang

Han Zhang

Groundwater in North Carolina often contains naturally-occurring minerals, such as iron and manganese, that tint otherwise clear water brown or even black. Would you bathe in a tubful of brown water, or sip a cold glass of muddy sludge? Most people wouldn’t, and yet for many North Carolinians solutions to this problem are hard to find.

In addition to the state’s 2.7 million private well users, many rural community water systems rely on groundwater sources, and a lot of these systems are privately owned and operated. CWFNC has found that private, for-profit companies tend to take a “bare minimum” approach to drinking water quality regulation, and the state and federal laws don’t actually forbid iron, color and manganese in drinking water.

The national Safe Drinking Water Act classifies these substances as “secondary” standards. There are guidelines for maximum amounts in drinking water, but they are not enforceable by law. This is because the Environmental Protection Agency views these substances as “aesthetic” problems rather than health threats.

Brown tap water photo

Tap water in the Ashe Plantation neighborhood, Mint Hill, NC.

Water high in iron can also do lots of damage to household appliances, stain clothes and promote bacterial growth in pipelines. Dealing with the out-of-pocket costs of filters and replacement appliances can be a financial burden for NC households, especially if they already pay large water bills to private companies for water they can’t even use! Private water companies respond to complaints by ensuring people that the water is safe to drink and meets minimum requirements, but even Aqua NC president Tom Roberts admitted when offered a jug of the company’s well water, “I probably would hesitate to drink that water, not from a health standpoint, but I understand the aesthetics of it.”

We need stronger laws to hold water providers accountable for providing clean, clear water. Some states, including Nevada, Florida, and California, have laws that are stronger than the national Safe Drinking Water Act, and include enforceable limits for substances like iron and color. In a time when NC’s laws and policies are drastically shifting based on political views, surely elected leaders can agree that all North Carolinians deserve clear water at their taps!

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