April 22, 2016
EPA wants info about risky pipes posted, accountability absent, says water watchdog
Some states and water utilities balk at the Environmental Protection Agency's call to post inventory information online about the number and locations of risky lead pipes in their systems, according to a review of documents obtained from 49 states by the USA TODAY NETWORK.
Drinking water regulators in about a dozen states expressed varying degrees of resistance or concerns about the EPA's directive encouraging water systems to voluntarily give consumers easy access to what utilities know about homes receiving drinking water through lead service lines, a key indicator of whether a home's tap water could be contaminated and whether utilities are complying with testing regulations.
"We do not have the initial materials inventory from systems readily available and do not intend to spend valuable staff resources sifting through microfilm to find this information," South Dakota's water regulatory agency told the EPA, saying in a letter March 7 that it would instead post details about the subset of homes where each utility takes its water samples.
USA TODAY NETWORK reporters collected letters from 49 state agencies responding to the EPA's call for action. Requests were pending for letters from New Jersey and the District of Columbia.
Some major water utilities told USA TODAY they also have concerns, including customers' privacy. The bottom line: It's unlikely water system inventory information will be widely available online anytime soon.
"What the EPA is asking for is critically important," said Yanna Lambrinidou, a drinking water safety watchdog and affiliate faculty member at Virginia Tech. She called resistance expressed by some states "highly troubling" and an impediment to the public knowing whether utilities are testing water from the right customers' taps.
Even after Flint, Mich., switched to corrosive river water that drew lead out of pipes at an alarming rate, the city's water system passed its EPA-mandated water tests in part because the city wasn't testing at homes with risky lead service lines, as required. Wednesday, criminal charges were announced against two Michigan state water regulators and Flint's water quality supervisor.
Lead usually gets into drinking water as it passes through lead pipes coming onto individual properties and into homes.
If utilities test water at homes that have little or no lead in their plumbing, the results are unlikely to find contamination and can give a false sense of safety across the system, as they did in Flint, Lambrinidou said.
"Accountability, up until today, has almost been completely absent," Lambrinidou said.
No safe level
A USA TODAY NETWORK investigation last month revealed that almost 2,000 water systems nationwide have failed to meet the EPA's standards for lead in drinking water. People in thousands more communities deemed in compliance with the EPA's lead rules have no assurance their drinking water is safe because of the limited and inconsistent ways water is tested, the investigation found.
It's an issue with significant consequences because there is no safe level of lead exposure.
Federal regulations required water systems in the early 1990s to determine what kinds of materials their pipes were made of in at least some portions of their distribution areas.
The EPA, as part of its effort to restore public confidence in the safety of U.S. drinking water, sent letters Feb. 29 to every state, calling on their drinking water regulator to "work with" utilities to post on the Web those documents—as well as any updates or maps of lead service line locations.
Many states told the EPA that water systems were never required to file their inventories with state agencies, which enforce federal drinking water regulations. The utilities merely had to certify that they had done the survey work to identify a limited pool of high-risk homes with lead service lines and lead plumbing to serve as testing locations.
Virginia water regulators told the EPA that representatives from the state's water utilities have "expressed a number of concerns ... primarily about the expenditure of a substantial amount of staff and financial resources to complete this request," according to the state's letter March 25. North Carolina and North Dakota also expressed concerns that gathering and posting inventory records would require significant effort.
"The placement of voluminous information gathered from these materials evaluations, most of which were conducted more than 20 years ago, on either the water system's website or on our agency's website would be overwhelming," North Carolina said in its letter.
Some states, such as Kansas, Missouri and Pennsylvania, raised privacy concerns about publicly posting the locations of lead pipes or addresses where utilities test water for lead.
The EPA said it is reviewing states' responses. The information the EPA wants posted will help "demonstrate that (water utilities) have conducted a thorough materials evaluation and understand the locations of lead service lines in their system," the agency said.
Rather than call for utilities to post inventories and updated maps online, some state regulators told the EPA they ask for different types of information to shed light on lead pipes.
South Dakota regulators have created and posted online reports for each water system listing the addresses of water sample sites and whether they are served with a lead service line or other lead materials. "We felt that that was as good or better than what the EPA was asking for," said Mark Mayer, the state's drinking water program administrator.
North Carolina said it will ask water systems to update certain forms, including those covering construction materials, plans for selecting water sample test sites and spreadsheets of test locations.
Though many states told the EPA they'll encourage water systems to post their original inventories and some said they are asking for updates, only a few states set deadlines or indicated efforts mandating sharing the inventories with the public, the USA TODAY NETWORK review found.
Massachusetts regulators noted in a letter March 29 that the Boston Water and Sewer Commission's online inventory information could serve as a model for others. The city of Cincinnati has posted similar information online that allows customers to look up information about whether they have a lead line, the Ohio EPA said in its letter April 1.
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This article’s original headline was “States, utilities resist lead disclosures Accountability absent, water watchdog says.”
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