Embattled Trump Nominee Inadvertently Draws Attention to Radiation in Drinking Water via Truthout

Kathleen Hartnett White, President Trump’s pick to run the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is probably best known for her idealistic view of fossil fuels. In 2014, she suggested that energy from fossil fuels “dissolved the economic justification for slavery” in the British Empire. As the Texas Observer noted at the time, coal mining fueled industrialization that actually increased demand for cotton picked by colonial slaves in the early 19th century.

Hartnett White has other controversial ideas. She told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in November that climate science is still “subject to debate,” and the degree that human-caused carbon pollution is contributing to climate disruption is “uncertain.” White’s remarks prompted 300 scientists and scholars to sign a letter “defending scientific integrity” and opposing her nomination, which seemed all but doomed until Trump resubmitted her name to Congress this week.


As head the White House environmental quality office, Hartnett White would have influence over how federal agencies regulate drinking water. Tap water used by 170 million Americans in all 50 states contains some level of radiation that may increase the risk of cancer at least marginally, according to a new report from the Environmental Working Group analyzing state data from 2010 to 2015. Only a small percentage of water systems serving a total of 276,000 people in 27 states reported radiation levels exceeding federal limits, but environmentalists warn those limits are already too high and should be updated to improve water quality.

Radiation in drinking water comes from naturally occurring elements in the Earth’s crust and may be higher in areas disturbed by mining or oil and gas extraction, according to the report. The most common sources of radiation are radium-226 and radium-228, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires utilities to test for these elements to make sure radiation in tap water does not exceed the federal limit.

During Hartnett White’s tenure at TCEQ, some water utilities in Texas that could not meet the federal standards for radium-226 and radium-228 faced violations that would have required them to notify residents, so state regulators ducked the limits by reporting radiation levels in tap water minus the margin of error attributed to the laboratory test, a practice the EPA had warned state regulators against.


Hartnett White defended the practice in an interview with the local news station that exposed the scandal in 2011, saying that the federal standards were too costly and TCEQ “did not believe the science of health effects justified the EPA setting the standards where they did.”


Even with public health goals that go above and beyond federal standards, California has more residents impacted by radiation in their tap water than any other state, according to the Environmental Working Group. Almost 800 water systems serving 25 million people reported levels of radium-226 and radium-228 in their drinking water. There is plenty of work to be done, and Walker says politicians must respect and strengthen public health standards in Washington, not ignore them like Harnett White’s agency did in Texas.

“We basically believe that everyone in the US should have a home water filter,” Walker said, adding that members of the public can review the test results for water in their area by using the database on the group’s website.

Read more at Embattled Trump Nominee Inadvertently Draws Attention to Radiation in Drinking Water

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