Failure to Disclose Lead Threats in Drinking Water: Widespread Problem

February 17, 2016

Bad as it is, the Flint drinking water disaster is hardly uncommon. Even though the law requires authorities to tell the public of dangerous levels of lead in drinking water, they often don't.

Failure to inform — by local, state, and federal authorities — was one of the worst parts of the Flint disaster. Because it kept parents unaware while kids kept drinking water that kept raising the levels of neurotoxic lead in their blood. Documents now show it wasn't just neglect, but resistance and refusal by the local water utility, the state officials who regulated it, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials who regulated them. You will hear more about this via the numerous Congressional hearings and other investigations that will unfold this year.

Yet the law, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), clearly requires local water utilities to notify customers when their water violates federal health standards. State regulatory agencies (like Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality) are supposed to make sure local utilities do this, and the U.S. EPA is supposed to make sure state regulators do that. In the case of Flint, however, documents showed that both the DEQ and the EPA worked to keep information about lead violations from being made public.

Some utilities follow the law and try to protect their customers. But hardly all.

Reporter Laura Arenschield of the Columbus (OH) Dispatch investigated the 14 water systems in Ohio that had advisories for lead contamination in effect in February 2016. Records from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency showed that 10 of the 14 had not properly notified their customers. Many of the water systems involved were small or part-time systems.

"Although tests last summer showed that the water in Sebring [OH] could be contaminated with lead," Arenschield wrote, "the local water system did not tell customers until the Ohio EPA forced it to do so in January. According to records, the Ohio EPA knew about the contamination as early as October but also failed to warn residents."

The lead problem is potentially widespread among aging U.S. water systems, especially in the East, where pipes may be more than 100 years old. Fixing the root cause by replacing buried pipes would be expensive.

The U.S. House of Representatives took a first step to address the problem by passing a bill (HR 4470) on February 10, 2016, that would fortify existing public-notice requirements in the SDWA.

EPA already has all the authority it needs to inform the public of contaminated drinking water. SDWA's emergency powers provision (Section 1431) authorizes EPA to take such actions as the Administrator may deem necessary when contamination may endanger health and state and local agencies have failed to act. The House-passed bill makes this less optional.

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