News Feature | July 1, 2016

18 Million People Served By Systems With Lead Violations

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Public officials have often failed to step in when water systems violate the federal Lead and Copper Rule, according to a report released this week by the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) on the “extraordinary geographic scope” of lead contamination.

“In 2015, 18 million people were served by water systems with lead violations. These violations were recorded because the systems were not doing everything that they are required to do to protect the public from lead issues, which could include failure to treat to reduce lead levels in the water (health violations), failure to monitor the water for lead as required (monitoring violations), or failure to report lead results to the public or the government (reporting violations),” the NRDC report said.

“The NRDC report found lead levels of more than 15 parts per billion in homes served by more than 1,000 water systems,” NBC News reported.

Over 5,300 systems violated the Lead and Copper Rule last year. But the numbers in the report may represent just a fraction of the problem. Underreporting and “gaming the system” suggest “that our lead crisis could be even bigger,” according to NRDC.

Regulators are failing to keep water systems in check, the report found.

“States took action in 817 cases; the EPA took action in just 88 cases,” CNN reported, citing the NRDC study.

“What's worse, the report reveals that the EPA is also aware that many utilities ‘game the system,’ using flawed or questionable testing methods in order to avoid detecting high levels of lead,” CNN reported.

The U.S. EPA’s response to the NRDC report, per CNN:

The EPA said it works closely with states "who are responsible for and do take the majority of the drinking water enforcement actions and are the first line of oversight of drinking water systems."

The agency added that, "it's important to note that many of the drinking water systems that NRDC cites in its analysis are already working to resolve past violations and return to compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act in consultation with state regulators or EPA."

Marc Edwards, the researcher credited with exposing the water crisis in Flint, MI, has researched EPA enforcement gaps, according to CNN. Edwards “noticed several years ago that the EPA was turning a blind eye to the ‘cheating’ by local water utilities,” the report said.

CNN reported:

Among the bad practices adopted by water utilities: selectively testing homes that are unlikely to have high levels of lead, asking residents to "pre-flush" their taps, and taking water samples "slowly," which reduces lead levels.

He wrote a paper on this in 2009. Then in 2011, Edwards said he overheard a local water official openly brag about cheating on the lead and copper rule.

"Right in front of EPA," Edwards said. "And I went back after that conference and I wrote EPA and I said, ‘How can you allow this to occur? I mean, what are you going to do about this?’” He later shared that letter in congressional testimony. It concludes with a line saying the EPA, "does not care whether children are lead poisoned from public drinking water."

Erik Olson, health program director at Natural Resources Defense Council, weighed in on the problem.

"Imagine a cop sitting, watching people run stop signs, and speed at 90 miles per hour in small communities and still doing absolutely nothing about it — knowing the people who are violating the law. And doing nothing. That's unfortunately what we have now," he said, per CNN.

To read more about complying with water guidelines visit Water Online’s Drinking Water Regulations And Legislation Solutions Center.

Image credit: "EPA," © 2011, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: