In Dozens of Little Flints, the Water Might Be Toxic

USA Today

January 3, 2017

During the presidential campaign, one of Donald Trump's most effective lines was, "It used to be, cars were made in Flint and you couldn't drink the water in Mexico. Now, the cars are made in Mexico and you can't drink the water in Flint."

Turns out, it's not just Flint where drinking the water may be hazardous to your health. A USA TODAY Network investigation, published this month, found that nearly 4 million Americans are drinking water that regulators have allowed to be either so negligently tested for lead that officials have no idea what is in the water or, when tests were done, high lead levels were ignored, often for years.

Dozens of lead-contaminated little Flints could be scattered across the country in communities of a few hundred to a few thousand people served by tiny water utilities with few resources and scant government oversight.

Just as in Flint, the Michigan city where lead contamination captured global attention, state environmental regulators and federal Environmental Protection Agency officials have had the data they need to pinpoint problems and warn parents who may be inadvertently poisoning their children at the kitchen sink.

But regulators instead chose to leave the public in the dark and allow children to drink questionable tap water while they pursued a low-profile approach that could stretch on for years. In some cases, regulators just gave up when they couldn't find someone responsible for the tap water.

When USA TODAY Network reporters looked through state and federal data, it wasn't hard to find communities where test results found many times the EPA's limit on lead in water or where testing simply wasn't done. The Americans left behind by environmental regulators, who sometimes treat lead contamination as a minor issue left over from another time, are quite often in Trump country. Places like Ranger, Texas, East Mooringsport, La. and Coal Mountain, W.Va.

The EPA wouldn't comment to reporters who spent a year looking into the hidden lead contamination problem, but the agency did release a new Drinking Water Action Plan last month. The plan is mainly window dressing, heavy on proposals for intergovernmental cooperation, ideas for new Web portals, education on best practices and new metrics. What it lacks is urgency and action.

Back when Trump was running for president, he expressed his enthusiasm for returning the EPA to its fundamental job of "crystal clear, clean water" and clean air. Sure, Trump has also said he wants to shut down the EPA, or at least slash its budget. And his choice of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the environmental agency is worrisome, considering that Pruitt has made a career of suing the EPA.

But Trump's professed concern for clean water and clean air may point to an opportunity for progress where eight years of a Democratic administration has left millions of Americans in poor and rural areas with water systems that could be tainted with toxic levels of lead. The new president would be smart to look for opportunities to show his "forgotten" voters that he won't forget them, even when it might mean more aggressive environmental oversight.

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