The bustling city of Des Moines in Iowa is a Midwestern hotspot with its historical landmarks, breathtaking botanical gardens, rich art scene, and awesome theme parks. However, every rose has its thorn (at least one), and in the case of Des Moines, it’s an unchecked groundwater plume threatening the health of nearly 600,000 residents.

    The issue is so serious that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently held a public meeting at Weeks Middle School to seek cleanup efforts on priority for Des Moines. In this article, we will discuss the details of the metropolitan’s underground water contamination, as well as how this case is a warning sign of history repeating itself.

    Where It All Started

    The roots of the Des Moines water contamination crisis go back to the early 1990s. In 1993, the government received its first alerts of a lurking problem when a then-business, called Deluxe Corp., enquired the EPA about the safe disposal of 41 large drums of urethane, all damaged in the recent flooding.

    In 1998, the company even asked the EPA to install water quality monitoring wells in case groundwater contamination was to occur. It does not seem like much action was taken on the EPA’s part because the contamination was only discovered by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 2004, that too during a groundwater investigation for a nearby project.

    As soon as the first signs of groundwater plume were discovered, the Iowa DNR began a thorough investigation, which lasted for over a decade. At the time, a company called Mid-America Development Corporation’s private property was believed to be the responsible party. However, the company denied all such responsibility each time they were questioned about the matter, thereby refusing to agree on cleanup and compensation.

    The contamination occurred at Lot 46 Valley Gardens, where the hazardous waste chemicals are said to be migrating towards the city’s primary water supplier – Des Moines Water Works (DMWW).

    Source of Contamination Elusive Till Date

    The groundwater plume situation is divided into the northern and southern regions. As for the southern plume, it is believed that a solvent storage tank of a since-closed metal brazing facility is responsible for the contamination.

    However, the northern plume’s source of contamination remains elusive to date. During its investigations, the Iowa DNR discovered traces of Trichloroethylene (TCE) in the groundwater in 2009. This is a chemical of concern because it degrades over time and its state changes. It is capable of impacting the environment, soil, wildlife, and human health in adverse ways.

    A slight ray of hope came with the news that the EPA has yet to discover levels of TCE beyond the safe limit for drinking water. This is precisely why the agency wants to closely monitor the DMWW through regular water sampling until quick cleanup efforts remediate the potential problem. Meanwhile, the area’s residents are highly concerned regarding the health implications of such a disaster.

    The Crisis Mirroring US’ Worst-Ever Public Water Contamination Tragedy

    Des Moines’ growing public water crisis closely mirrors the worst-ever public water contamination tragedy in US history – the Camp Lejeune water contamination. This crisis began at North Carolina’s Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune, in the early 1950s and was not discovered until 1982.

    An offsite dry-cleaning facility’s by-products leached dangerous levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) like Trichloroethylene and Perchloroethylene (PCE) into the Camp’s groundwater, which was consumed by veterans and their families for nearly three decades. Over the years that followed, the Camp’s residents complained of life-threatening injuries like cancers of the bladder, liver, kidney, and breast, Parkinson’s disease, multiple myeloma, and more.

    While President Barack Obama made provisions for free healthcare for all the victims through the Camp Lejeune Families Act in 2012, it was the Biden administration that allowed them to seek compensation for their damages. Victims or their families are eligible to receive optimal Camp Lejeune water contamination settlement amounts as a part of mass tort litigation. However, administrative claims must be filed first with the US Navy JAG. In case of no resolution within six months from the date of filing a claim, a lawsuit may be filed.

    In some cases, the Camp Lejeune victims did not have the advantage that Des Moines’ residents do. For instance – the US Navy was aware of the possibility of a water contamination disaster from organic solvents but paid little heed to its dangers. Earnest efforts to investigate the Camp only started in October 1980. Even after “dangerous levels of water contamination” were detected in 1982, the EPA and US Navy pushed the matter for three more years, and the contaminated wells were closed in 1985.

    Had early action been taken, the Federal agencies could have mitigated the issue. Not to mention the large-scale environmental and health damage that could be prevented. According to TorHoerman Law, even the current scenario is not too promising as the Navy JAG continues to delay the claims resolution process. Some fear that they may never receive justice, but plaintiff attorneys are doing their best to maximize recovery through payouts.

    It is estimated that the government will need to offer anywhere from $25,000 to $1 million in compensation. In light of the expected 500,000 claims by August 2024 (the statute of limitations for the lawsuit), the total settlements could easily stand at billions.

    The Remediation Plan: A Day Late and a Dollar Short?   

    Even the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base was listed as a Superfund site on the National Priorities List in 1989. Rigorous efforts were carried out by the Pentagon and EPA to clean up the Base of hazardous chemicals like Trichloroethylene. Today, the Camp is up and running like before, and the EPA conducts reviews every five years to check the water quality.

    As of 2020’s report, the contaminants are under control, and the water is safe for consumption. The next report will be published in 2025. As for Iowa’s Des Moines, the EPA seems to have learned its lessons from the Camp Lejeune crisis. The agency took immediate action, reassuring Des Moines’ citizens that the current water is safe for consumption. However, the leached chemicals are slowly making their way into the DMWW’s groundwater, which needs to be addressed immediately.

    As a result, it has decided to first check the extent of the contamination to estimate costs and alternatives. The agency has also said that it will look for “potentially responsible parties” who will also be liable for the cleanup. The site will be added as a Superfund site to the National Priorities List by early 2024, after which full-blown cleanup efforts will take place to remove soaked-up chemicals from the soil and possibly the groundwater supply system.

    However, the agency cannot give an exact timeline for the same. The cleanup may take a few years before periodic reviews are conducted to monitor water quality.

    The Bottom Line

    While the Déjà vu in Iowa Des Moines’ groundwater plume (with Camp Lejeune’s water contamination) is pretty evident, it is a relief that the present water is not beyond the EPA’s safe consumption limits.

    If that were the case, we had great cause to fear that another public health crisis was in the making; this time, involving over 500,000 people (the Camp Lejeune crisis affected one million Marines and their families). The EPA’s immediate action to propose the site to the NPL and start cleanup efforts early next year is also promising.

    Now, it is all a matter of waiting to see how the Iowa DNR and Federal agencies join hands to prevent another public water contamination catastrophe from wreaking havoc on lives and the environment.