By Patrick Crow
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has reported that more than 18 million Americans received drinking water in 2015 from systems that had lead violations.
The environmental group said the lead problem could be even greater because many water systems known to have such violations - including the one in Flint, Mich. - were not reported as having lead violations in the government database designed to track such problems.
“Shoddy data collection, lax enforcement of the law, and cities gaming the system have created a potent brew of lead violations and unsafe drinking water from the water supplies used by millions of people,” NRDC Health Program Director Erik Olson said.
The report analyzed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data on violations of the Lead and Copper Rule and subsequent enforcement actions. It said 5,363 community water systems serving more than 18 million people were cited for rule violations. Those included failure to treat to reduce lead levels, failure to monitor for lead, and failure to report test results to citizens or the government.
NRDC said not everyone served by these systems may have excessive lead in their water; only a small percentage of homes were tested and lead levels can vary from home to home. It said from 15 million to 22 million Americans receive water through service lines that can leach lead into tap water.
Olson said nine out of ten of the water systems with rule violations never faced any formal enforcement and penalties were sought in only 3 percent of the cases. “The message sent to water suppliers that knowingly violate the law is clear: There is no cop on the beat,” Olson said.
NRDC said the fact that Flint was not on the list of Lead and Copper Rule violators indicates that the problem of lead-contaminated water likely is much broader than previously understood because EPA audits have long established that many drinking water violations do not show up in the database.
The report said in cities like Flint, Chicago, and Philadelphia, where localized lead spikes may put the public at risk, officials allegedly have “gamed” water testing in ways that may obscure lead contamination. For example, they can monitor at the locations least likely to have lead problems or can use sampling methods that minimize the odds of finding high lead levels.
NRDC said that after years of complaints about such techniques, EPA issued a guidance last February discouraging these methods.
The environmental group, along with local partners, has filed a lawsuit seeking to require Flint to comply with federal law governing safe drinking water and replace its lead service lines.
Meanwhile, 61 members of the House of Representatives have urged EPA to reduce the 90th percentile lead action level measurements that trigger corrective actions from a water system to 10 parts-per-billion (ppb) standard.
The 59 Democrats and two Republicans wrote EPA that a lead action level of 10 ppb would reflect “the latest science on incidence and health effects from lead in drinking water and effective notification of elevated levels.” The congressmen said a 10 ppb standard also would align with World Health Organization guidelines as well as the European Union Council Directive on drinking water.
EPA plans to update the Lead and Copper Rule next year. The current regulation requires community water systems to periodically sample water for lead contamination at consumer taps. If more than 10 percent of samples exceed 15 ppb, the utility must initiate actions such as additional monitoring, corrosion control treatment, source water monitoring, lead service line replacement, and public education/notification.
The congressmen sent their letter just days after the House of Representatives discovered that it had drinking water problems of its own. Fountains in the Cannon building were disconnected after they tested for more than 15 ppb of lead. Cannon, the oldest of the House office buildings, was constructed in 1908 when lead pipes for drinking water were common.
About the Author: Patrick Crow covered the U.S. Congress and federal agencies for 21 years as a reporter for industry magazines. He has reported on water issues for the past 15 years. Crow is now an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer.