Lead & Lies

Sept. 2, 2016
A new report from NRDC highlights startling information about lead in U.S. drinking water

About the author: Sara Samovalov is associate editor for W&WD. Samovalov can be reached at [email protected] or 847.954.7966.

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If you thought Flint, Mich., was alone in its struggles with lead, you are in for a unpleasant surprise: According to a recently released report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 18 million Americans’ drinking water came from water systems with lead violations in 2015. Many of these systems—including Flint—did not appear on the U.S. Environ­mental Protection Agency (EPA)’s database of Lead and Copper Rule violators. The report, titled “What’s in Your Water? Flint and Beyond” is available on NRDC’s website. W&WD Associate Editor Sara Samovalov spoke to Kristi Pullen Fedinick, one of the study’s authors, about its revelations. 

Sara Samovalov: What spurred NRDC to conduct this investigation? 

Kristi Pullen Fedinick: NRDC’s investigation of water systems across the U.S. was spurred by our involvement with the now-notorious water crisis in Flint, Mich., where lead-contaminated water flowed from the taps, while public officials lied and denied that there was any problem. We wanted to better understand the extent of possible lead contamination across the country.

NRDC was invited to Flint, Mich., last summer by local residents and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan to help address local drinking water contamination issues. We served the EPA with a formal petition, asking that the agency issue an emergency order to secure safe drinking water for the people of Flint. Ultimately, the EPA “deferred action” on the emergency petition, citing its work with state and local officials to resolve the issue. In January 2016, NRDC and the ACLU of Michigan, along with Concerned Pastors for Social Action and Flint resident Melissa Mays, filed a Safe Drinking Water Act citizen suit, which is being litigated at this time. The drinking water in Flint remains unsafe, more than three years after the water crisis began. 

Samovalov: Why would a state or EPA opt not to take enforcement action in response to lead violations?

Fedinick: There are a number of factors that can lead to a lack of enforcement. Some of it is resources—you need to have the staff to go out and enforce the laws at the state and federal level, and these departments are not always adequately funded. Another reason could be federal EPA’s hesitancy to act before states—particularly states with primary responsibility for ensuring that laws are followed and enforced.

Samovalov: Why didn’t water systems known to have lead violations show up in government databases?

Fedinick: Absolutely the most astonishing discovery in our report was that Flint—the national poster child for failures in protecting the public from lead in drinking water—did not have any violations for lead in 2015. This glaring omission illustrates a serious problem here: under-reporting and “gaming” the system by some water suppliers to avoid finding lead problems. In other words, the lead crisis is likely much bigger, but we can’t get a fully accurate picture, because some of the data are simply not reported. One example of underreporting or gaming: A system can test for lead where it is pretty sure there’s not a problem and not detect any problem. That’s what has happened in Chicago and Philadelphia, where we actually know there are lead problems.

Samovalov: How widespread is “gaming” the system, and how might it be stopped?

Fedinick: It is hard to know how large the problem is. Systems that are gaming would not show up in the data at all—making them impossible to uncover with the methods we used.

In February of this year, EPA issued a memo to clarify testing methods for tap sampling for lead. The memo outlines specific recommendations for reducing the use of lead sampling techniques that systems can use to decrease the likelihood of finding high levels of lead in a system (e.g., pre-flushing a system, removing aerators and using narrow-necked bottles). We do not know the impacts of this memo yet, but hope that it changes the culture of systems where gaming is taking place. 

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