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Lead in the Water, Way Beyond Flint

Testimony at the Feb. 3 hearing on Flint (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

A single serving of pasta cooked with North Carolina tap water in the home of a sick baby contained more lead than a dime-sized paint chip. An increase in spontaneous abortions and miscarriages was tied to undisclosed lead in the Washington, D.C.'s drinking water. And tap water at an Ohio mobile home community was found to have three times the allowable lead levels for months before residents were informed.  

As members of Congress scramble to address the lead-tainted water in Flint, Mich.,  the nation’s sprawling and aging water delivery system faces broader problems than one community's crisis. Deteriorating infrastructure, combined with outdated government regulations, have left many places vulnerable to contaminated drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates it will cost $384 billion over the next 20 years to address the country's "drinking water and infrastructure needs," according to a statement from an agency spokesperson. The task is complicated by the small size of most water utilities, which are tasked with treating water from a variety of sources with shrinking budgets, aging equipment and frequent staff turnover. Climate change and newly identified pollutants pose additional challenges, the spokesperson said.  

Recognizing the scope of the problem, lawmakers have developed a range of proposals and funding requests. “Clean water for American citizens is not a political issue,” Rep. Steve Russell, R-Okla., said in an interview. “It’s a government responsibility.” But costs and philosophical differences about Congress' role in fixing state and local matters could thwart any such efforts.  

Russell, who is pushing for better regulation by the EPA, was one of several members of Congress to draw comparisons between Flint’s crisis and those in DC, Greensboro, N.C. and Mercer County, Ohio, during a House Committee on Government Reform hearing last week.  

Other lawmakers said they were working on bills that would address infrastructure problems, in addition to proposed measures that would pay for health care and education for as many as 9,000 young children exposed to lead in Flint's water. The House expects to bring up a bill Wednesday that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to inform communities about contamination, while House Democrats host a hearing that day exploring the impact of lead poisoning on young children.  

The Senate is working on a plan to help Flint fix its corroded pipes and support families affected by the contamination. In the presidential campaign, Democrat Hillary Clinton left New Hampshire just ahead of Tuesday's primary for a news conference Sunday in Flint.  

Even as the Flint crisis grabs national headlines, the EPA is dealing with other ongoing water issues.  

"There are drinking water issues across the country that we are monitoring actively and working with our state partners to address," EPA administrator Joel Beauvais testified at last week's hearing. As he spoke, EPA officials were distributing bottled water and informing residents in Ohio, where a cluster of villages had allowed lead contamination to continue unchecked for months.  

EPA officials did not supply a list of communities the agency is monitoring despite repeated requests from Roll Call last week and Monday.  

Water quality is controlled at the source for a variety of pollutants — using guidelines that haven't been updated in two decades. The water then snakes through hundreds of miles of pipes made of lead, copper and even wood, each of which can introduce a new set of contaminants before entering residents' homes.  

Problems in Flint, for example, arose when the city switched water suppliers and stopped adding an anti-corrosion agent, in violation of federal law. That allowed acidic water to eat through iron and lead pipes, leaching contaminants into the water. Other recent problems elsewhere have been spurred by changes in the chemicals used to disinfect drinking water.  

The Government Accountability Office has been asked to review the issue, focusing on themes that were raised in a report published in 2006, after elevated lead levels were found in the District's tap water,  Natural Resources and Environment Director J. Alfredo Gomez said in an email. The 2006 report, the result of a year-long investigation, found that the EPA was missing significant data to support its claim that lead levels in drinking water systems had dropped in the previous decade.  

Scientists and water quality activists said, however, that the most egregious recent outbreaks — including the situation in Flint — could have been avoided if government officials had followed laws already in place.  

"Water quality is well regulated — very well regulated," said Rich Valentine, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University or Iowa who focuses on water quality. "The particular problem at hand is when treatment systems are modified and not properly monitored as required by the law, and that’s when trouble can happen."  

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech scientist credited with helping to expose the lead contamination in Flint, D.C., and North Carolina, said that in each of those situations, officials were found to have been using testing methods that masked the true level of lead in the water. In the D.C., Flint and Ohio cases, the damage was exacerbated by officials who failed to inform the public.  

“The public health agencies empowered and entrusted to protect our children from lead and water have proven themselves unworthy of the task,” Edwards said. “What’s so unusual about Flint is that they got caught."  

Edwards has appeared before three Congressional hearings — including the one last week — to urge Congress to close loopholes in federal drinking water regulations. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to revise its regulations on lead and copper in water every seven years. But the rule has not been updated since 2007, and it has not be substantially revised in 25 years.  

Several House members seized on the delay during the Government Oversight Hearing last week.  

"I don't know, Mr. Chairman, that there's been more of a catastrophe in government handling of an issue since Hurricane Katrina," said Jodie Hice, R-Ga. "This is absolutely a train wreck in every way. And the EPA is so far behind."  

Beauvais, the EPA's Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Water testified last week that the agency expects to release substantial updates by 2017.  

Russell, the Oklahoma Republican, suggested Congress “insist” that the Environmental Protection Agency revise its outdated requirements on how and when local water suppliers test for lead and copper in their water.  

Rep Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., said he planned to introduce a bill in the coming weeks that would provide federal money to help states, water suppliers and disadvantages communities upgrade their water infrastructure and improve the management of their existing delivery systems, and to strengthen the EPA's ability to enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act.  

He acknowledged that the proposal would likely meet resistance because of its expense, but added, "The cost of doing nothing here will overwhelm the cost of doing something," he said.

Two Michigan House members, Democrat Dan Kildee and Republican Fred Upton, proposed a bill that would require the EPA to disclose to the public any data that shows elevated lead levels in drinking water. That bill is set to come up on the House floor on Wednesday. A similar measure was presented in the Senate by Michigan Democrats Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters. The two senators are also seeking $600 million in federal dollars for Flint, a proposal tied up in negotiations over a broad energy bill.

Beyond the hearing on lead exposure Wednesday,  the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced a hearing in March to "gain a comprehensive understanding of the short-and long-term implications of this crisis to the public health and environment."

Contact Akin at stephanieakin@cqrollcall.com and follow her on Twitter at @stephanieakin.

Related:

Post-Flint, Demand for More EPA Water Protections May Be Difficult for Some States to Swallow

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