World Water Day Troubled by U.S. Lead Data

World Water Day Troubled by U.S. Lead Data 


by JOHN GREGERSON | March 22, 2016

Turns out Flint, MI, was just the lead-tainted drop in the proverbial bucket. 

Earlier this month, Fitch Ratings estimated that more than six million lead service lines in place nationwide, mostly in the Rust Belt states of the Midwest, Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, were most at risk for lead-tainted drinking water.

But the true breadth of the national problem could far exceed even that alarming assessment, extending from coast to coast, according to data obtained from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and reported last week by USA Today. The data, derived from an EPA repository on U.S. water systems that includes all action-level lead tests, identified nearly 2,000 drinking water systems in all 50 states where lead levels exceeded agency standards. Data reflected findings over four years, from 2012 through 2015. In all, the 2,000 systems supply water to nearly six million people.

USA Today also discovered that officials at more than 180 water systems had failed to notify consumers of their findings, which is a violation of federal law. Of note, citizens of Texas and California may be just as much at risk as those in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Among other findings, about one in seven of those systems supplies drinking water to schools and day care centers. Such facilities are of particular concern since children are even more prone to developmental disorders upon exposure to lead, which may lead to lower IQ levels, attention deficit disorders, and other learning disabilities. In fact, a separate Washington Post investigation of 12 states last month found “a greater percentage of kids (under six years old) met or surpassed” blood lead levels requiring action. “The most egregious example is Pennsylvania, where 8.5% of children tested were found to have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood,” the newspaper reported.

In one instance, USA Today cited a water sample from a Maine elementary school that was 42 times greater than EPA's limit of 15 parts per billion (ppb). But those numbers were pristine compared to findings at an elementary school in Ithaca NY, where tests yielded a disturbing reading of 5,000 ppb – the near equivalent of toxic waste, according to EPA standards.

Lead levels in the drinking water at an elementary school in Ithaca NY were found to exceed EPA standards by 333%

EPA sets lead-based standards, but it frequently is left to states or jurisdictions to monitor systems and take action upon discovery that a water system has exceeded those standards, typically when 10% of samples demonstrate lead levels greater than 15 pbb. However, USA Today reported that “enforcement state by state can be inconsistent and spotty. Some 373 systems have failed repeatedly, with tests continuing to show excessive lead (levels) in tests months or even years later, the EPA data shows.”

All downhill: Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder and USEPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on March 17 testified before the U.S. House of Representatives' Oversight and Government Reform Committee. For video highlights, click here.

All downhill: Mich. Gov. Rick Snyder and USEPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on March 17 testified before the U.S. House of Representatives' Oversight and Government Reform Committee. For video highlights, click here.

So, who is at fault? States, jurisdictions or the agencies that oversee them? The question was put to the test at a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill on March 17, when Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy were grilled about the Flint crisis, both for the state's failure to take action and federal EPA's failure to provide the oversight required to ensure remedial measures were taken, once both parties learned the city's drinking water was tainted.

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform found plenty of blame to go around. “Plausible deniability only works when it's plausible," Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA), told Snyder after emails were read indicating Snyder aides were aware of lead-tainted water in Flint months before the state took action action. “You were not in a medically induced coma for a year. I've had about enough of your false contrition and your phony apologies.”

Plausible deniability only works when it’s plausible... You were not in a medically induced coma for a year
— Rep. Matt Cartwright, questioning Gov. Snyder

Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) charged Snyder's administration with “utter incompetence” and alleged it was Snyder's responsibility to implement provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act once the problem was discovered.

Acknowledging his state had “messed up,” Snyder for his part also attempted to shift blame to EPA for failure to recognize inaction on the part of state EPA officials. “I have a really simple question, why didn't Administrator McCarthy just get on the phone and call me?" Snyder said. “...I have accepted responsibility because those people work for me, but it's something different to have this continuing dialogue to say this was solely us.”

E-mail records indicate EPA was aware of the Flint's crisis as early as February 2015, nearly a year before Snyder declared the city was in a state of emergency. However, McCarthy testified the state had hampered EPA's ability to oversee the crisis and bring it to a halt.

"I will take responsibility for not pushing hard enough, but I will not take responsibility for causing this problem,” McCarthy testified. “It was not EPA at the helm when this happened.”

Meanwhile, under ground...

The finger pointing did little to allay concerns about the larger problem at hand. At greatest risk are more than seven million U.S. homes that use lead service lines – or laterals – to tap into municipal water mains. As a provision of EPA's Lead and Copper Rule, implemented in the early 1990s, water departments are charged with monitoring lead lines for corrosion. Anti-corrosive chemicals can mitigate – if not eliminate – problems associated with lead.

Further, laterals may be severed during large-scale main projects, 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. In December, EPA's National Drinking Water Advisory Council requested removal of all U.S. lead lines.

Just weeks before meeting with the House Committee on Oversight, McCarthy last month wrote U.S. governors and water regulators to advise them 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. 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.”

In turn, state water regulators said that it is still up to the federal government to inform water utilities when contamination levels are such that they should sound the bell, “Do not drink.”

In Flint, of course, that bell sounded too late. Now, however, it is ringing from coast to coast. 

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