In 2016 the Colorado health department announced the presence of cancer-causing chemicals in drinking water in Fountain, Colo., just outside Colorado Springs. Tests by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discovered that nearby military bases had been leaching toxic chemicals, including substances known as PFASs, into drinking water for decades, potentially contributing to higher-than-normal rates of cancer. The Department of Defense has since admitted their responsibility for at least 55 drinking-water site contaminations worldwide, and the EPA has announced new plans to set drinking-water limits for PFASs by the end of the year.
When Americans think of polluting industries, they usually think of steel mills, coal plants and massive factories belching smoke and dumping toxins. But like the military bases in Colorado, industries not normally associated with pollution have been major drivers of environmental harm in the decades since the rise of the modern environmental movement — including Silicon Valley’s tech companies. Focusing on these stories, rather than the outdated images of smokestacks, steel factories and burning rivers, shows the persistence of pollution in a high-tech age, as well as the necessity of ongoing local activism to demand federal regulation.
Drinking-water contamination has been a source of health concerns for well over a century. Issues of water quality, sewage disposal and waste treatment rose up alongside the development of urban areas, which depend on access to fresh water for sanitation, public health and industrial and municipal development. Throughout the 19th century, American cities treated water supplies as public sewers and waste depositories. Few industries and property owners faced challenges to their use of water resources until public health advocates during the Progressive Era brought attention to the ways pollutants were contributing to health problems in local populations.