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

The contamination crisis in Flint, Mich., has thrown a harsh national spotlight on the problem of lead in drinking water, especially in poor and minority communities. Yet the issue is hardly new — Washington, D.C., had its own infamous lead scandal in 2004, among other communities that have seen lead spikes.

Now health advocates are calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to quickly toughen the protections that states must require of local water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Among the mandates on the table is the eventual and costly replacement of all lead pipes in drinking water systems, rather than just those shown to be an immediate threat to health.

The EPA has been holding talks since 2010 on long-term revisions to its Lead and Copper Rule, last updated in 2007 after two years of deliberations.

The rule requires states to enforce the law by making sure local water systems take precautions to keep lead out of the drinking water supplies, such as treating water to limit the leaching of lead in pipes, a process known as corrosion control.

The EPA has said it will propose the revisions in 2017, an action that will take on new importance in light of the exposure of families in Flint to high levels of lead, a strong neurotoxin that can affect child brain development and behavior, and cause illness in adults.

One of those who hopes the problems that surfaced in Flint are addressed in the revisions is Hilliard L. Hampton II. Last year, he ended 16 years as mayor of Inkster, Mich., a small majority African-American suburb about 75 miles south of Flint that has had its own share of financial problems.

Hampton sits on the National Drinking Water Advisory Council, which advises the EPA on implementation of the law. The council in December sent Administrator Gina McCarthy an eight-point set of recommendations to revise the lead rule.

He signed off on the advisory council’s recommendations, which came out of a working group that met seven times over 15 months, ending last summer as the Flint crisis was coming to light.

The list urged more emphasis on lead water pipe replacement and proper corrosion control measures to prevent leaching of lead. It also urged greater use of test samples from home water taps and action when results show heightened levels.

He pointed to a broad recommendation by the council that EPA should use the revised rule to minimize all contact between drinking water and lead pipes, and focus on low-income and vulnerable consumers.

“It epitomizes where I would like us to be, in terms of making sure there are no loopholes. We want to remove all lead pipes from water, potable water, totally.”

Hampton sees some parallels between his town and Flint. The state under Gov. Rick Snyder also considered installing an emergency manager in Inkster, but a consent agreement in 2012 requiring spending cuts by the town averted that outcome.

Inkster also relies on Detroit for its water, as did Flint, until the Snyder-appointed emergency manager in 2014 switched its source to the Flint River. Still, some areas in Inkster have shown elevated lead levels in drinking water, Hampton said.

He also wants rapid action on the flaws that led to the contamination in Flint, such as requirements for a review of corrosion control when a new water source is tapped by a water system.

“Strengthening protocols — addressing leaching and the corrosion control — are things that need to be done immediately, they need to be strengthened immediately,” Hampton said.

States expect to face additional burdens under a revised EPA lead rule, said Jim Taft, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Officials, whose members were involved in writing the council’s recommendations.

His group, which represents non-appointed state officials, supports the suggestions to the EPA and wants to see the Flint revelations incorporated into the agency’s proposal next year, Taft said.

“States probably feel that there likely will be some additional requirements of them beyond those that exist now,” he said. “But I think states also feel we collectively as a drinking water community, as a country, need to improve on the existing regulation. The fundamental thrust of the recommendations from the (council) are to get the lead out.”

Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor and national water expert credited with uncovering the Flint contamination as well as lead exposure in Washington, has been a vocal critic of the EPA’s inaction in Flint despite early warnings from an employee in its Chicago office, Miguel Del Toral.

He’s also been a critic of what he says are weaknesses in the Lead and Copper Rule, such as allowing states to sign off on drinking water sampling methods that underestimate lead content in some homes — a flaw that led Flint and Michigan officials to say the city’s water was safe to drink.

Edwards, who was appointed by Snyder on Jan. 27 to an official 17-member committee to address Flint’s long term health and water infrastructure needs, did not respond to a request for comment.

But in a blog post in November, he said the objectives of the rule have “never been realized” because no tests are required on drinking water that has been sitting in lead pipes. “In other words, millions of consumers who are currently being told that their water is safe, are drinking and cooking with water that routinely dispenses high concentrations of lead,” he added.

The EPA has said that while its long term revisions to the rule will not come this year, a spokeswoman also noted in a statement to CQ Roll Call that the agency is taking the Flint crisis into account in that process and potential short-term revisions.

“EPA will carefully evaluate these recommendations, national experience in implementing the rule, and the experience in Flint to develop a proposed revision to the rule,” she said, referring to the advisory council’s list.

“But even as the agency considers revisions, it will continue to engage with state and water systems on potential nearer-term steps that could strengthen implementation of the existing rule.”

EPA officials met with Flint residents in January, as did President Barack Obama, who spoke with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver on Jan. 19.

The moves to revise the rule come as the agency works to implement a separate law, the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, passed in 2011 that lowers the allowable lead in plumbing fixtures and materials to a quarter of 1 percent, down from the current standard of 8 percent.

The future of the rule could also be affected by Congress, where legislation indicates how expensive the repairs to the Flint water system could become for taxpayers.

Three Michigan Democratic lawmakers — Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, and Rep. Dan Kildee — have unveiled legislation that would require the EPA to alert the public when lead is detected in drinking water, if local and state officials do not act.

The EPA withheld notification of its concerns to Flint residents last year, which was among the factors that led to a public uproar and the resignation of the administrator of Region 5, Susan Hedman, effective Feb. 1.

Her departure was announced with an emergency order by McCarthy that requires the state and Flint to take immediate steps to address the crisis, including increased public notice and sampling.

They would also direct $400 million to the EPA to repair or replace Flint’s water infrastructure. The money would require a dollar-for-dollar state match; Snyder estimated in an application for federal disaster assistance that the damages to Flint’s public and private water lines total more than $767 million.

Another $200 million over 10 years would be spent on a new federal center in the Health and Human Services Department to support Flint residents exposed to lead.

Snyder, at a press conference on Jan. 27, said any totals for the replacement of lead service lines in Flint are nonetheless “speculation” until a complete assessment is made, and that the short-term goal is to recoat pipes that were corroded by Flint River water to prevent lead leaching.

Regarding replacing the lead pipes, Snyder said, “That’s one of the issues we have to look at statewide, and that’s a national issue. ... There are lead pipes in many places, and you have to come up with the proper priorities in terms of how do you replace that infrastructure.”