Do more to protect rural America’s tap water, lawmakers say

Federal and state governments must do more to protect the health of rural Americans in communities where drinking water may be contaminated by lead or not even tested for the brain-damaging toxin, lawmakers and environmental advocates said in response to a USA TODAY Network investigation this week.

The investigation found the United States' drinking water enforcement system doesn’t make small utilities play by the same rules as large ones, exposing millions of Americans to lead-tainted or untested water. About 4 million Americans get their water from small operators who skipped required tests or didn’t conduct them properly, according to an analysis of records from the federal government and all 50 states. The investigation also revealed that about 100,000 people get drinking water from small utilities that discovered excessive lead contamination, but failed to treat the water to remove it even though the problem is known by state and federal regulators assigned to keep water clean and safe.

“Water quality is a vital priority” no matter the size of a community, said U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr., D-New Jersey. “This is not a Third World country and we shouldn’t act like a Third World country….The federal government has to help. We need all hands on deck.”

Pascrell and others said the nation needs to invest more money in drinking water infrastructure, strengthen safety rules and do a better job at enforcing existing regulations.

“The moral justice on this is really clear,” added Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. “American kids don’t live only in Baltimore or only in Philadelphia or other big cities. They live in West Virginia and West Texas and Oklahoma too….These have been wholly overlooked communities.”

Pascrell said it's well worth the cost to control corrosion and keep pipes from leaching lead, a brain-damaging toxin that is especially harmful to babies and children. “It costs money to keep water pure and clean," he said.

Regulatory changes would also help, Pascrell said. In June, he was one of the signers of a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calling for reducing the lead “action level,” the standard above which water systems must take action to reduce contamination. A utility now exceeds the standard when more than 10% of water samples collected show lead levels above 15 parts per billion. The lawmakers propose lowering that to 10 parts per billion. The FDA allows only 5 parts per billion of lead in bottled water.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Michigan, who also signed that letter, said the Flint water crisis in his state was an “an extreme case in terms of lead exposure,” but “I’ve come to understand just how pervasive this problem is.”

“Whether it’s an urban or rural community with limited resources, we can’t ignore the fact that clean drinking water is not cheap,” he said. “It’s going to require significant investment. The federal government or state or some combination have to get in the game.”

Kildee said that’s partly because some of the hardest-hit communities are the poorest, and can’t simply raise water rates on customers or rely on community coffers. Compared with larger, more affluent communities, he said, “it’s not an even playing field. The quality of the water you drink shouldn’t be dependent on the income of the zip code you live in.”

Kildee has been working for change. The Kildee-(Fred) Upton provision in the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, which is awaiting the president’s signature, would require that once the lead action level has been exceeded, the state has 24 hours to notify the affected community. If it doesn’t, the provision says the EPA must.

He said these sorts of measures are important, but so is the long-term goal of replacing old lead pipes, fixtures and solder.

“As there’s more infrastructure investment, we need to include water infrastructure,” he said. “People tend to think of infrastructure as roads and bridges. In Flint, we had what is tantamount to a bridge collapse that poisoned thousands and thousands of people.”

U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., D-New Jersey, echoed those sentiments.

“Safe and clean drinking water should be a guarantee for all Americans, but unfortunately water systems around the nation are in dire need of modernization…” he said. “We need to ensure strong enforcement of drinking water standards, empower communities by providing better information about drinking water monitoring, and support communities that cannot afford needed infrastructure improvements.”

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the senator supported a provision in the recently-passed water infrastructure act authorizing assistance for small, disadvantaged communities with inadequate drinking water systems. This includes grants for programs providing household water quality testing.

Drinking water specialist Johanna de Graffenreid, who is the coastal campaign organizer for the Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans, said state governments also play a crucial role in enforcing drinking water safety rules and helping struggling utilities, but are often hamstrung by a lack of money.

“They are so underfunded now,” she said. “Our drinking water system is underfunded, under-repaired and under-enforced...We have the basic infrastructure here but we're not maintaining it."

Norton, of Green & Healthy Homes, said she would welcome more infrastructure investments and would also like to see a greater push to prevent lead poisoning and educate the public and its leaders about the problem.

On Tuesday, she was on her way to the National League of Cities’ Mayors’ Institute on Housing, Hazards and Health in Dallas, and said participants had asked her for copies of the USA TODAY Network investigation so they could discuss the issues it raised. She said she hopes President-elect Donald Trump and his cabinet also take up the issue of lead in water. She pointed out that the USA TODAY Network investigation focused on voters Trump appealed to during the campaign — working-class people in the small, rural “flyover” communities.

Requests to the communications director for Trump's transition team and Trump's deputy communications director requesting interviews have not yet been answered.

Reducing lead poisoning from water is “a massively important, doable, achievable goal," Norton said. “It would be a big win that would improve the lives of millions of Americans.”

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