Heightened Interest

Sept. 28, 2016
Regulators & legislators push for more education, outreach about contaminants

About the author: Bob Crossen is associate editor for WQP. Crossen can be reached at [email protected].

It comes as no surprise the past year has been filled with proposed government regulations and legislation regarding water quality. The issues in Flint, Mich., created a critical awareness of water quality throughout the U.S., leading experts to urge federal and state governments to invest more money in water infrastructure.

Worry over water quality is not limited to lead lines, however. Rural communities without centralized water treatment plants often manage water wells. Those supplies also have been the subject of legislation, as the Savings Act (HB1160 and SB1642) aims to find cost-effective means to ensure those wells have safe water.

How and when to notify and educate the public about contaminated water are the driving forces behind much of the legislation, said Kathleen Fultz, regulations and government affairs coordinator for the Water Quality Assn.

“After Flint, Mich., in February, we definitely saw more heightened proposed legislation dealing with water quality for both levels: the federal and the state levels,” Fultz said. “We’ve seen a lot more legislation this year at least being proposed than we have in years past, but of course, the process is still slow.”

Feeling Flint’s Influence

Timely and accurate public notification came under the most scrutiny during the crisis in Flint. The U.S. House of Representatives addressed the concern with the Improving Notification for Clean and Safe Drinking Water Act of 2016 (HB4414). The bill would give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) more leeway in addressing communities with problematic water.

“[It] requires the EPA to notify the public within 15 days of lead exceedance if the public water system or the state doesn’t do so first,” Fultz said. “This came after Flint happened to make sure the public is aware right away. It also allows the EPA to step in and provide that notification.”

Prior to the bill, the responsibility fell on the public water system or the state to notify the public of the problem. Establishing that kind of authority for EPA, Fultz said, was a major driver for public officials.

Similarly, the Safe Drinking Water Act Improved Compliance Awareness Act (HR 4470) would allow EPA to notify customers of contamination if the state or public water system failed to do so within 24 hours of learning it exceeded acceptable levels. The bill also would require EPA to create a strategic plan for public outreach and education, which Fultz said is another common legislative theme in the wake of Flint.

“The sooner the public knows that there is an exceedance of any contaminant—lead, obviously, being the one they are focusing on—is the sooner that they can protect their homes with water treatment and do the proper research,” Fultz said. “If they already have treatment in place, they might need to contact whoever they had help them install it to see if they need to make adjustments.”

Comprehension & Education

Even if the public is made aware of contamination in its water, it may not fully comprehend the problem. Lead contamination sounds bad, but most consumers do not know just what they need to do to ensure their water is filtered properly to prevent health effects.

Fultz said one such example came from a school district in Portland, Wash., where schools installed water filters. The district then discovered it had a lead problem, and the installed filters were not equipped to resolve the contamination.

“[The schools] didn’t realize that the filters that they had originally installed were just to remove taste and odor; they weren’t also to remove lead,” Fultz said. “Letting people know what the contaminant is [will] help them in either purchasing a product or in making sure they already have the right product.”

Issues like the one in Portland are not uncommon. Schools in particular have been under the microscope when it comes to ensuring students have access to safe drinking water, and many states are pushing for stricter standards for public schools. 

Washington, D.C., which had an incident similar to Flint 15 years ago, also has taken such measures. Fultz said a bill passed in July requires the General Services Administration to designate where filters must be installed and properly maintained for drinking water sources.

“What makes this one pretty unique is that they have to test all these designated water sources with filters in the schools annually and take remedial action if the lead level is above 1 ppb,” Fultz said, noting the EPA threshold is 15 ppb.

Taking a broader approach to regulating water quality, Arizona legislators wrote a bill requiring public water systems to “identify and notify persons possibly affected by lead contamination.” The bill has passed the state House and Senate, and according to its language, criteria for determining who is notified will be based on lead service line records.

Eyeing Future Trends

Regulations and legislation involving lead contamination still are at the forefront of public officials’ minds, but there also have been movements toward other trending issues. Among those are perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOA and PFOS). 

Although EPA does not have regulatory guidelines involving these contaminants—which are linked to testicular and kidney cancer, and thyroid disorders—it has issued health advisories for them.

Fultz said states are taking PFOA and PFOS to task by regulating acceptable levels with legislation, much like what California did with hexavalent chromium.

“Right now, the EPA regulates total chromium, but California went a step further and created a state maximum level for hexavalent chromium,” Fultz said. “We’ve been receiving a lot of inquiries about PFOA because it is an unregulated contaminant. What makes it so interesting is states are looking for guidance, but it is unregulated by the EPA.”

As awareness for PFOA and PFOS grows, Fultz said she expects to see more states look to EPA for guidance on what levels are acceptable, and push for regulations. With Flint still dominating media coverage for water quality, however, most of the legislation and regulations will target public notices, awareness and lead contamination for the foreseeable future. 

About the Author

Bob Crossen

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