Arsenic and Lead in Tap Water: What Trump's Deregulation Crusade Really Means for Mining Communities

As a candidate, Donald Trump promised that he'd shake up the economy to benefit "the forgotten man." But his economic policies have included deregulation in ways that can harm the very people he promised to help. The repeal on September 12 of a major clean water regulation is only the latest example.

As human rights advocates working in a number of countries, including the U.S., we have seen how policies that reduce regulation of dangerous industries can increase health and safety risks for workers and communities, while offering them little in return. This is as true in the U.S. as it would be anywhere; in fact, in one recent study In the coalfields of Appalachia, we examined how deregulation left communities exposed to the health risks of coal mining pollution. And in another, in the Eastern European country of Georgia, we found that unsafe practices contributed to a rise in mining accidents and deaths after labor and safety laws were gutted.

Cutting regulations in the US was supposed to revive the coal industry, which largely blamed Obama-era rules for its economic woes. One of the first laws Trump signed as president repealed the Stream Protection Rule, which would have helped monitor and mitigate water pollution from mountaintop removal, a particularly destructive form of coal mining.

Since 2009, public health researchers at West Virginia University and elsewhere have published over a dozen studies showing significantly higher rates of cardiovascular disease, lung and other types of cancer, birth defects, and overall mortality in counties with mountaintop removal compared to other Appalachian counties, even after they controlled for factors such as poverty, smoking, obesity, education, race, and rural disadvantages.

Soon after throwing out the Steam Protection rule, the Trump administration quashed further study into mountaintop removal mining's health risks by abruptly canceling funding for a National Academy of Sciences study that had already been halfway completed.

We found that hundreds of families living near such mines found toxic metals such as lead and arsenic in their tap water, consistent with mining pollution. One family we visited showed us the brown stinking water that began to run from her faucet after the mining began. "I'm worried about my babies," the mother said. "Is it safe to bathe them?"

Our research into other areas the Trump administration is deregulating had similar findings. We have found the EPA's two-phase effort to weaken rules on the disposal of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of coal combustion contaminating groundwater across the United States, poses a serious threat to drinking water, especially the 13 million households that rely on private wells.

Of course, mining is not the only sector where deregulation dramatically increases risk to life and limb. In the meatpacking industry, our colleague recently published a 100-page report documenting how deregulation of slaughter line speeds endangers workers. Workers consistently blamed the alarmingly high rates of traumatic injuries and chronic illness, such as cuts, burns, and disabling pain on rapid work speeds, yet the Trump administration is permitting companies to accelerate production even further.

Strikingly, our research findings in the United States echo those from our research on coal and manganese mining in Georgia, despite the two countries' very different economic and political contexts. In 2003, the peaceful "Rose Revolution" forced out the Georgian president, a former Soviet Union foreign minister, and replaced him with Mikhail Saakashvili, an American-educated lawyer who promised to jumpstart the country's stagnant economy. Saakashvili slashed entire sections from Georgia's Labor Code in 2006, including abolishing the labor inspectorate and removing key protections for workers' safety, pay, and rest.

The reforms helped Georgia gain a more business-friendly reputation, but since then worker accidents have skyrocketed. One study found that deaths at work soared by 74 percent over the 10 years from 2007 to 2017, as compared with the period from 2002 to 2005. Most of these deaths were in mining and construction.

Last year, ten miners died in two separate incidents within months of each other in a coal mine in western Georgia. Human Rights Watch spoke to dozens of coal and manganese miners who described intense production pressures that they said exposed them to unacceptable risks. Many blamed these pressures or insufficient rest for accidents that resulted in deep cuts and concussions, lost limbs, and being buried under rocks as roofs collapsed.

And what about the promises of prosperity? The Trump administration lauded the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule by saying it would save thousands of jobs. But since the beginning of 2019, three coal producers employing around 3,800 miners have declared bankruptcy. And while many of these jobs will most likely vanish, polluted streams and groundwater will remain, in part because the Stream Protection Rule has been repealed. Similarly, while increasing production speeds at meatpacking plants may help corporate profits, workers' wages continue to decline.

In Georgia, a recent World Bank study found that in Chiatura, where the manganese mine is a main employer, the direct poverty rate, a measure of poverty that tracks people's ability to pay bills, buy food, and the like, was a striking 50 percent, among the highest in Georgia.

While foreign investment increased, Georgia has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the region. And unemployment increased by over 3 percent between 2006 and 2013, the period when labor regulations were at a nadir.

Deregulation of mining in the country of Georgia and the United States illustrate how slashing rules may cut costs for industry—but when it shifts the risks of doing business to workers and communities, people can pay the price with their safety and their health.

Sarah Saadoun is a business and human rights researcher and Corina Ajder is the Finberg fellow, both at Human Rights Watch.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

Correction: This article was updated to better reflect the former Georgian president's role in the Soviet Union.

Arsenic and Lead in Tap Water: What Trump's Deregulation Crusade Really Means for Mining Communities | Opinion
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