The recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, in which elevated lead levels poisoned an entire city and took years to spark action, served as a wake up call to many Americans about the danger of lead in drinking water. But a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) finds that Flint is just one of many places where lead levels have reached dangerous levels.
“Americans take it for granted that the water flowing from their drinking water taps…is clean and safe,” Erik Olson, director of the NRDC’s health program said on a call with the media. “But what we found is that all too often that assumption is wrong.”
Between 2013 and 2015, according to the NRDC’s analysis of Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) violation and enforcement records, more than 3.9 million people were served by a community water system that had lead levels in excess of the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion in at least 10 percent of homes that were tested. While the EPA has said that there is no safe level of lead, anything above 15 parts per billion is meant to spur remediation action to get rid of the health threat. This was found in 1,110 water systems last year.
In addition, the NRDC found that 214 systems that serve 583,725 people failed to meet the requirements of treating water so as to reduce the health threat of lead contamination in 2015.
These violations are part of a huge number of systems that are out of compliance with the law that regulates lead in drinking water. Between 6 and 10 million lead service lines are in use throughout the country, serving somewhere between 15 and 22 million people. The EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule requires water systems that serve more than 50,000 people to either treat their water with corrosion control chemicals that keep the lead from leeching from pipes into drinking water or to show that they don’t need to use those chemicals because their water isn’t corroding pipes and isn’t contaminated. It also requires regular testing, and if more than 10 percent of tested taps have lead levels above the 15 parts per billion mark, a system has to take measures to reduce it such as better corrosion control or removing lead service lines.
But the NRDC found that a total of 5,363 community water systems, serving more than 18 million people, were in violation of the rule last year. Violations included the failure to properly test water for lead, failure to report contamination to officials and/or the public, and failure to treat the water with chemicals that can keep lead from leeching into drinking water. In total, these systems racked up 8,093 violations of the Lead and Copper Rule in 2015.
Only 459, or 5.7 of the total, of the violations had fixed the problem and come back into compliance by the end of last year.
None of these figures capture the crisis in Flint. That’s because the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality still has not officially reported that the city is in violation of the Lead and Copper Rule. And this fact illustrates why the NRDC’s analysis of reported violations is likely very incomplete: water systems often duck the rule by failing to properly monitor their water, including using testing techniques that reduce the likelihood of detecting contamination; incorrectly documenting violations; and failing to report them to the EPA as required by law. “A water system can avoid detecting lead in their water if they’re savvy and understand how the rules work,” Olson said. “The water crisis is likely to be a lot wider than what we’re representing, but we can’t get an accurate picture.”
The NRDC has been analyzing EPA data for more than two decades and has found that states often underreport violations. As the report notes, “If Flint’s extraordinary lead contamination problems are not included in the EPA’s official compliance data, how many other municipalities’ serious lead problems are being swept under the rug by officials responsible for protecting public health?”
States may have little incentive to shape up. The EPA, along with states, took formal action — including entering into a compliance agreement, issuing an administrative order with or without penalties, and bringing an enforcement action in court — against just 908 of the 8,093 violations last year, or just over 11 percent. That means nearly 90 percent of the violators of the Lead and Copper Rule got away scot free. And just 252 of the enforcement actions, against 3 percent of all violations, sought penalties. “This lack of accountability sends a clear message to water suppliers that knowingly violate the Lead and Copper Rule, with state and federal complicity: There is no cop on the beat,” the report says.
The NRDC includes recommendations for reforming the Lead and Copper Rule, something EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has said the agency is working on and will be releasing a draft proposal in 2017. It proposes amending the rule to require fully replacing all lead service lines, better monitor lead levels, prohibit water systems from using testing techniques that reduce the actual level of contamination, and require much improved notification of violations to the public.
Congress has already taken some action: In February, Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (IL) and Ben Cardin (MD) introduced the CLEAR Act, which would direct the EPA to develop better reporting, testing, and monitoring of lead and copper levels in drinking water. “We can no longer sit idly by,” Durbin said on the call with media on Tuesday. “Flint is not an isolated example. It calls on us to show leadership.”
Replacing lead lines would take a huge amount of money; the American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that it would cost more than $1 trillion to replace every water pipe in the country. The cost of replacing all of Flint’s pipes has been estimated at $55 million.