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Flint Debate Finds Fault, but Water Woes Rise Across U.S.

Flint Debate Finds Fault, but Water Woes Rise Across U.S.   

'Snyder's head! At their latest debate in Flint MI, the two battling Democratic hopefuls found common ground.

'Snyder's head! At their latest debate in Flint MI, the two battling Democratic hopefuls found common ground.

WATCH: A new BuiltWorlds program.

WATCH: A new BuiltWorlds program.

by JOHN GREGERSON | March 10, 2016

U.S. Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders rarely agree these days, but both Democratic candidates found accord earlier this week on the debate stage in Flint MI. There, each called for the resignation of reeling Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who has been in constant damage control mode since the depth of Flint's lead-tainted drinking water woes made national news in January. 

“He should resign,” declared Sanders Sunday night on CNN. Added Clinton, "Amen to that."

Gov. Snyder, who actually took to social media (@onetoughnerd) to defend himself during the debate, has battled allegations and contested evidence  that his administration had ignored local complaints about Flint's water quality for over a year. Earlier this year, the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) even resigned amid similar allegations.

As we have noted before, however, the issue of municipal drinking water quality is by no means limited to Flint. On the contrary, Sunday night's nationally televised exchange between the candidates underscored mounting concern about the wholesomeness of drinking water in the Great Lakes region, the Rust Belt, and most older U.S. towns and cities. In the wake of all these revelations, now only about 50% of U.S. citizens are "very confident" about the safety of their drinking water, and a majority believe Flint's toxic contamination is indicative of a much larger problem, according to a new poll conducted by the Associated Press and GfK. The public's suspicions appear to be well-founded.

Source: NextCity.org, Center for Neighborhood Technology, Dec 2013.

Source: NextCity.org, Center for Neighborhood Technology, Dec 2013.

Last week, Fitch Ratings released a note estimating more than six million lead service lines are in place nationwide, most located in the Northeast, Midwest and older urban areas. The American Water Works Association estimates a similar total, but other groups have placed the number as high as 10 million. After initially estimating the total cost of national lead pipe replacement at more than $275 billion, Fitch this week took the unusual step of retracting its figure. "Replacement costs per line could be as high as $5,000," Fitch said in a statement. "(So) the costs that the entire U.S. water sector would bear to replace, comprehensively, all lead service lines... would range from a few billion to $50 billion."

The costs that the entire U.S. water sector would bear to replace, comprehensively, all lead service lines... would range from a few billion to $50 billion
— Fitch Ratings, March 8, 2016

Overall, an EPA survey indicates that the nation's water infrastructure will require $385.5 billion in improvements through 2030. Spending would account for only partial replacement of lead pipes, according to EPA.

Fitch suggested that costs could be managed if upgrades occur over an extended period of time. However, should EPA and other policy makers require quicker action, thereby financially burdening utilities, consumers may absorb a greater proportion of costs, according to Andrew DeStefano, director of U.S. public finance with Fitch, who spoke to reporters earlier this month.

To date, Michigan lawmakers have allocated $67.4 million to contend with problems in Flint. Snyder has called for an additional $165 million.

If passed, a federal bipartisan bill crafted in late February would authorize EPA's Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to issue up to $100 million in subsidized loans or grants until October 2017 “to any state that receives an emergency declaration… to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in a public drinking water system.”

Source: NextCity.org

Source: NextCity.org

The bill also would create a new fund allocating $70 million in subsidies that could spur more than $700 million in low-interest financing for water infrastructure projects in Flint and elsewhere.

Fitch indicated that a number of lawsuits filed against Flint and other government officials also could prompt legislation to prevent future outbreaks of lead-tainted water. To date, a dozen suits have been filed in local, state and federal courts relating to the Flint crisis.

EPA's McCarthy

EPA's McCarthy

Also under fire, EPA has stepped up federal efforts to ensure drinking water safety. On Feb. 29, the agency sent a pair of letters to U.S. governors and water regulators vowing to more vigorously enforce rules preventing lead contamination. The letter also urged states to locate all lead water lines that they still currently have in place.

Specifically, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy wrote that her staff “will be meeting with every state drinking water program across the country to ensure that states are taking appropriate action to identify and address” lead-related issues. Also, she added that EPA will collaborate with states to ensure that “adequate and sustained investment” is in place to support policy involving drinking water and to seek assistance to fund “upgrading and replacement of aging infrastructure, particularly for poor and overburdened communities.”

new Concerns, Old Data

To some extent, circumstances in Flint are unique. Most U.S. lead lines are shielded by a protective coating to prevent corrosion. However, large-scale water main projects frequently require that lines  or laterals  extending from mains to residences be severed, unavoidably releasing lead-containing scale and sediment. According to EPA, alarming amounts of lead can leach into tap water in weeks, months, even years, after lines are cut. 

The more immediate problem states face is locating all the lead lines, as EPA has urged. Many lines were put in place prior to 1950, decades before such information could be digitized. As a result, records may contain gaps, making it difficult for cities to comply with federal rules requiring they sample drinking water in facilities at high risk for contamination.

Circumstances vary from city to city. Chicago's Water Department recently indicated it does not maintain an inventory of homes with lead service lines. City officials further note the majority are on private property, outside their jurisdiction.

By comparison, Boston MA residents can access an internet-based map of lead service lines. “If the service line is made of lead, you are encouraged to replace it to protect the health of people in the building,” the city noted in a statement.

The City of Madison WI recently rid itself of lead service lines altogether, bankrolling $1,000 of replacement costs per line as an incentive to local homeowners and businesses.

All told, policymakers, regulators, states and jurisdictions have their work cut out for them as they confront an issue that escaped their notice for years, even as it festered underfoot.

Next up? Lead paint. The New York Times reports that that problem in Cleveland OH, alone, already dwarfs any current woes involving lead-tainted water in any U.S. city. Expect to hear much more about that issue as Ohio's own U.S. Presidential primary nears next week. Of note, the general field of candidates still includes the state's sitting Gov. John Kasich (R). So, stay tuned.

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