Democracy Watch: Flint Residents Ask EPA to Change Drinking Water Rule

POST BY Curt Guyette Investigative Reporter

The City of Flint took center stage Wednesday during a meeting of water experts considering proposed changes to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Lead and Copper Rule.”

LeeAnne Walters, the mother of a lead-poisoned child and a leader in the struggle to expose Flint’s lead crisis, told members of the EPA’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council (NDWAC) that loopholes exploited by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ)and similar agencies in many other states need to be closed to protect people from the dangers posed by lead, a powerful neurotoxin.

“I am here today because of what happened to my son, my family, the entire city of flint and what is happening nationally,” Walters told members of the council during the meeting in Crystal City, Va. “This started because my family started getting sick along with other families in the city. We were constantly being told that our water was safe by the city and the MDEQ and it wasn’t.”

Walters pointed to three practices that minimize the amount of lead that can be detected during monitoring conducted by cities under the oversight of state agencies:

  • 1. Pre-flushing, which clears out water lines prior to testing and minimizes the amount of time water is exposed to lead in service lines and household plumbing;
  • 2. The use of small-mouthed bottles to collect water samples. When being collected for samples  water is supposed to be run with the tap wide open because the high flow rate is more likely to dislodge lead particles. Using bottles with small mouths increases the likelihood that residents collecting samples will run the water at a trickle, thus reducing the amount of lead particles that appear in the sample;
  • 3. Placing a cap on the amount of time water is stagnant in a home’s plumbing before testing. The Lead and Copper Rule mandates that water must have not been used for at least six hours prior to testing so that there is sufficient time to absorb lead if it is present. However, that is only the minimum. The longer water is allowed to sit, the more lead it will absorb. In the case of the MDEQ, residents were instructed to not let their water remain stagnant for more than eight hours, again minimizing the amount of lead that would be detected.

“I am outraged that the EPA continues to allow this type of dishonesty with testing to continue nationally,” Walters said.

State Sen. Jim Ananich (D-Flint) likewise targeted flaws in the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR).

“Instead of a shield to protect families from exposure, in our case it appears the rule was used as a shield to protect officials from having to admit there was a dangerous and foreseeable problem,” said Ananich.

“At a minimum,” he added, “our experience should highlight the faults with pre-flushing and sampling methods, confusion about implementation – particularly when dangers like corrosion are foreseeable …  these are all issues that need to be addressed swiftly.”

Swiftness, however, is not part of the process.

The NDWAC meeting this week was part of a periodic review of the Lead and Copper Rule. That review began with the NDWAC’s appointment of a work group, which met seven times over the past two years to consider proposed changes to the LCR.

After evaluating the work group’s proposed changes, the NDWAC will submit a report to the EPA, which is unlikely to implement any changes for at least a year, said Peter Grevatt, director of the EPA’s  Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.

During opening remarks on Tuesday, Grevatt recognized the significance of Flint’s water crisis, saying that the contamination of the city’s water “serves as an example of the ongoing challenges we face.”

The challenges of stricter enforcement were laid out during Wednesday’s public comment period by professor Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech scientist who led an independent study of Flint’s water that found lead levels dramatically higher than those claimed by the city and the state.

Edwards said that if deficiencies in the LCR were addressed and loopholes closed, about 60 percent of the consumers in U.S. cities with lead pipes would have water exceeding the federal action level of water containing at least 15 parts per billion lead.

“Consumers in these cities would then have to be warned that their water was not save, and utilities would be required to conduct the first-ever studies to truly optimize corrosion control for lead service lines. In short, consumers would finally reap the originally intended benefits of the rule.”

The problem of lead service lines – which connect individual homes to water mains – was a main focus of discussion at this week’s meeting. It is estimated that there are 10 million such lines in the United States. Typically, cities own the portion of the line extending from the water main to the curb while homeowners are responsible for the other half.

The work group is recommending that all of these lines be replaced in the coming decades. But how are cash-strapped municipalities going to foot the massive bill for their share of the costs, and how will homeowners – especially those on low-incomes – be made to pay to replace their portion of the lines?

As of yet, there are no answers to the question of funding.

While closing loopholes and strengthening the LCR would certainly result in increased costs to municipalities by forcing them to accurately identify lead levels and take action to address them, doing so is imperative, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Hurley Children’s Hospital in Flint, explained to the advisory council.

It was Hanna-Attisha’s study revealing the number of children with elevated lead levels in their blood doubled following the city’s switch to the Flint River as its water source in April 2014 that finally prompted Gov. Rick Snyder to allow the city to return to the Detroit system’s much cleaner and less-corrosive water in October.

“What happened in Flint is a failure of government,” U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) told the NDWAC. “People expected the government at multiple levels would be able to protect them by making sure that the water they drink is healthy for them, and government failed them.”

The question now is, will the EPA be willing to take the actions necessary to prevent such failures from continuing to happen?

Instead of a shield to protect families from exposure, in our case it appears the rule was used as a shield to protect officials from having to admit there was a dangerous and foreseeable problem