From The Editor | November 15, 2017

Fixing The Federal Response To Lead Contamination

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga

Fixing The Federal Response To Lead Contamination

When it comes to the crisis of lead contamination in the nation’s drinking water, there are lots of places to point the finger.

The problem stems from outdated lead pipes, which leech the contaminant into water as it travels from treatment plants to homes. The fact that those pipes remain in place and continue to pose a health threat to consumers all over the country can be seen as a failing by the utilities themselves, local politicians, or state regulators. But, as Harry Truman liked to say, the buck stops with the federal government. It’s clear that the lasting solution to such a fundamental issue will only come from federal action.

In an effort to spur that action, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the legislative branch that investigates and evaluates federal issues on behalf of Congress, has put together a report to enhance the U.S. EPA’s oversight of lead in drinking water.

Last year, at a time when lead contamination was a regular occurrence in mainstream news headlines thanks to the crisis in Flint, MI, several congressional representatives tasked the GAO with reviewing the issue of elevated lead in drinking water. It published its findings in September through a 103-page report with background on the problem, issues that need to be addressed, and a list of recommendations to help alleviate the problem.

When it comes to enforcing standards for the presence of lead in drinking water, the federal government turns to the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), the standard that limits concentrations of lead in public drinking water. So, the GAO focused on how to best enforce and maintain that rule as its avenue for curbing the issue.

“Our work provided the EPA with recommendations for how the agency could improve its oversight of the LCR,” said Alfredo Gomez, a director at the GAO. “The specific objectives of the review were to examine what the available EPA data show about compliance and enforcement of the LCR among water systems … how EPA uses these data to monitor compliance, and factors, if any, that may contribute to water systems’ noncompliance with the LCR.”

Chief among its background findings, the GAO found that, of the roughly 68,000 drinking water systems that are subject to the LCR, at least 10 percent had one or more open violations of the rule. But, because the LCR does not require states to submit information on their lead pipelines to the EPA, the agency does not have a full sense of the country’s lead infrastructure. Fixing that seems like a good place for the federal government to start.

“As we note in the report, there are multiple potential benefits to the federal government knowing the locations of lead pipes: identifying locations for sampling that may be susceptible to lead or copper concentrations, studying the utility of corrosion control treatment, and targeting federal efforts to replace lead pipes,” Gomez said. “Increased information about lead pipes provides the EPA and congressional decision-makers with important information at the national level on what is known about lead infrastructure in the country, thereby facilitating oversight.”

Specifically, the GAO has three distinct recommendations for the fed.

Firstly, for the reasons outlined above, it wants to see the EPA require states to report available information about lead pipes to the agency’s Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS) database.

Secondly, it wants all 90th percentile sample results for small water systems reported to the SDWIS, something that is not currently required because of the burden it puts on states.

“Generally, EPA headquarters officials said that having all 90th percentile sample results for small systems would give the agency a more complete national picture of lead in drinking water,” said Gomez. “More specifically, EPA would have data to track the changes in lead levels over time among small systems and would be better positioned to assist states in early intervention for small water systems that are near the lead action level, where appropriate.”

Thirdly, the GAO wants the EPA to develop a statistical analysis to identify water systems that have a chance of violating the LCR.

“By developing a statistical analysis that incorporates multiple factors … such as the presence of lead pipes and the use of corrosion control — to identify water systems that might pose a higher likelihood for violating the LCR, EPA could supplement its current efforts and better target its oversight and limited resources,” Gomez said. “With the LCR applying to about 68,000 water systems across the country — or approximately 45 percent of all drinking water systems — it is important to target federal and state limited resources to those water systems that pose the highest likelihood of a violation.”

It seems simple enough that collecting and acting on more data from water systems would be a tangible way for the EPA to make strides on lead contamination. The remaining question is how these recommendations will be turned into action.

Gomez said that the EPA is considering its first two recommendations along with other stakeholder input as it looks to revise the LCR following a public review and comment process in 2018. The GAO plans to follow up with the EPA regarding the development of a national statistical analysis that would satisfy its third recommendation.

Only time will tell if this report and its recommendations spur real change. While they wait, many consumers will be left with tainted water.

Image credit: "Untitled," urbanbohemian, 2015, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: