Democratic Lawmakers Seek to Tighten Lead Water Rules

Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced legislative proposals May 4 to tighten US EPA oversight of lead levels in drinking water.

By Maureen Lorenzetti

Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate introduced legislative proposals May 4 to tighten US EPA oversight of lead levels in drinking water.

"No American should fear the safety of their tap water, but unfortunately, the danger from lead in drinking water still exists," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), a senior member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Resources Committee. Markey said that under current EPA rules, a community's water can be declared safe even if 10% of the lead tests fail to meet the standard, and there is no requirement to notify the failing households that their drinking water has unhealthy levels of lead.

The Lead Free Drinking Water Act would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to direct EPA to review and revise the current maximum contaminant level for lead in drinking water. The legislation also calls on utilities upon violation of the standard to increase the percentage of lead service line replacements to 10% per year until all the lines are replaced. The bill also calls on EPA to improve public notice and education on lead in drinking water. Additionally, the legislation requires that tests are conducted every 6 months on a statistically relevant sample.

Lawmakers also want EPA to establish a lead service line replacement fund of $200 million per year for 2005 to 2009. Finally, the legislation would redefine "lead free" plumbing fixtures as having 0.2% lead, as compared to the currently allowed 8% lead content, and make it illegal to install anything but lead free plumbing fixtures.

Rep. Markey joined Representatives Norton (D-DC), Waxman (D-CA), Fattah (D-PA), Moran (D-VA), Wynn (D-MD), and Solis (D-CA) in introducing the bill in the House. Senators Jeffords (I-VT) and Sarbanes (D-MD) introduced the legislation in the Senate.

AWWA Supports Lead Reduction Measures

The American Water Works Association told House lawmakers that it supports measures to reduce lead exposure and promote public health. AWWA Water Utility Chairman Howard Neukrug spoke to the US House Committee on Government Reform during testimony on elevated lead levels in Washington, DC's drinking water and the situation's national implications.

Neukrug said AWWA advocates a comprehensive national approach to reducing lead contamination from all sources.

"This should involve a program of research and public education concerning the sources of, dangers of, and protection against lead contamination from all sources such as paint, dust, drinking water, and others," he said.

The group also wants to see corrosion control treatment techniques by utilities to reduce exposure to lead in drinking water. It also supports replacement of lead service lines that significantly contribute to high lead levels in the home. But they told the committee that requiring a water utility to remove privately owned lead service lines "is unreasonable and raises constitutional legal issues with regard to private property and eminent domain."

AWWA said it advocates a "holistic" approach to the development and implementation of drinking water regulations to minimize the extent to which regulations can interfere with each other. Finally, it proposes that a neutral group such as the National Academy of Engineering conduct an independent study of the recent drinking water lead contamination problems in Washington, DC.

Along with AWWA, other stakeholders that testified included Benjamin Grumbles, Acting Assistant Administrator for Water, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Aaron Colangelo, Esq., Project Attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council.

USGS Says Water Quality A "Complex Picture"

America's rivers and streams are generally suitable for irrigation, supplying drinking water, and home and recreational uses. But in areas with significant agricultural and urban development, US water quality suffers because of contaminants such as pesticides, nutrients, and gasoline-related compounds, the US Geological Survey said.

USGS recently released 15 reports on the health of major river basins nationwide. The river basins studied are in Hawaii, Alaska, California, Washington, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho, North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

According to the USGS Chief Hydrologist Robert Hirsch, "By evaluating and assessing our nation's water resources, we have a better understanding of water quality and this gives us a comprehensive picture of the long-term health of America's rivers and aquifers. We have analyzed the effects of agricultural, urban, and forest land use practices on water quality, habitat, and biota."

Major challenges that continue to affect streams and ground water are sources of pesticides, nutrients, metals, gasoline-related compounds and other contaminants. In urban areas, insecticides such as diazinon and malathion which are commonly used on lawns and gardens were found in nearly all of the streams that were sampled. Streams in agricultural areas were more likely to contain herbicides - especially atrazine, metolachlor, alachlor, and cyanazine, USGS said.

Hirsch also noted that, "Concentrations of contaminants in water samples from wells were almost always lower than current EPA drinking-water standards and guidelines. However, the possible risk to people and to aquatic life can only be partially addressed because of the lack of criteria for many chemicals and their degradation or 'breakdown' products. In addition, criteria were developed for individual chemicals and do not take into account exposure to mixtures or seasonal high pulses in concentrations."

The reports on water quality were completed by the USGS National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program. Of the 51 areas studied in the first phase of the program, the USGS said it has launched a second round of studies in 42 areas to determine trends, fill critical gaps in the characterization of water-quality conditions, and increase understanding of natural and human factors that affect water quality.

USGS said other trends related to water-quality over the past decade include:

• Changes in land management practices can improve water quality in streams over time. For example, changing from furrow to sprinkler and drip irrigation in parts of Washington's Yakima River Basin has reduced runoff from fields resulting in less sediment and compounds such as DDT in streams. In fact, concentrations of total DDT in large-scale suckers, smallmouth bass, and carp from the lower Yakima River decreased by about half since the 1980's.
• Even low levels of urban development have an impact. In Anchorage, for example, the abundance and diversity of aquatic insects became affected when about five percent of a watershed was converted into areas like parking lots.
• Natural features, such as soils, climate, and geology, are an important influence on water quality in watersheds. For example, mercury concentrations in fish are affected by the amount of wetlands and chemical properties of soils and water, and therefore, fish in forested streams in New England had higher levels of mercury than fish in the more urban watersheds in the Boston metropolitan area.
•Contaminants can occur naturally, even in "relatively pristine areas" like Wyoming and Montana's Yellowstone River Basin. Elevated phosphorus concentrations were noted as derivatives from igneous and marine sedimentary rocks. Elevated arsenic levels are most likely from sedimentary rocks in contact with geothermal waters.

More in Drinking Water