Awareness of antiquated drinking-water systems’ potential to fail on a number of levels is at an all-time high as critics excoriate the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality, state Gov. Rick Snyder (R) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for their roles in the devastating water crisis in Flint, Mich.
“Regulators and the entire water sector have been worried about instances like Flint for a number of years,” says Steve Via, regulatory affairs manager for the American Water Works Association.
Other occurrences have drawn notice. In 2003, Washington, D.C., officials detected elevated levels of lead in drinking water, triggering a major system upgrade. Sebring, Ohio, detected excessive lead in its water in January. Although the EPA responded quickly to the situation in Sebring once the contamination was discovered, elevated levels of lead were detected as early as last summer, The New York Times reported.
According to the EPA, although the exact number of lead-laden lateral connections between trunk lines and homes across the thousands of water systems in the U.S. is not known, the total is thought to be in the millions.
Scott Berry, director of the Associated General Contractors of America’s utility-infrastructure division, adds, “I think problems like Flint and problems not even like Flint, [which] we haven’t even seen yet, are on the horizon. We have been drastically underfunding our water infrastructure program for decades.”
Lawmakers are scrambling to enact legislation to address the crisis in Flint, where pediatricians have recorded unhealthy levels of lead in the bloodstreams of children who have been drinking contaminated water for months.
At press time, senators were negotiating the details on legislation that would provide additional funding for struggling water utilities. As an amendment to the comprehensive energy bill being considered in the Senate, Democratic lawmakers sought to add a bill providing up to $600 million for any water systems dealing with lead or other forms of contamination; however, Republican lawmakers balked at the funding levels. The jockeying derailed the energy bill, at least for now.
In the House, lawmakers were expected to vote on a bill that would strengthen the Safe Drinking Water Act to require EPA to notify the public when lead levels in drinking water are elevated. Rep. Dan Kildee (R-Mich.), who lives in Flint, introduced the legislation.
The fiscal 2017 presidential budget, released on Feb. 9, also bumps up funding for the drinking-water state revolving fund (SRF) loan program but cuts funding for the Clean Water SRF.
Although Democrats and Republicans may disagree on funding levels, lawmakers from both parties have expressed outrage over the crisis in Flint. At a Feb. 3 hearing of the House Oversight Committee, ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said, “This is not a political issue; this is a moral issue. … We will get to the bottom of this, and we will do it in a bipartisan way.”
Activists and residents from Flint traveled by bus to attend the hearing, applauding and cheering after lawmakers and witnesses blasted the governor, local officials and the EPA.
“This was an entirely avoidable set of circumstances,” Kildee said. He pointed the finger squarely at the governor and the state-appointed emergency manager, saying both were culpable for lead leaching into Flint’s drinking water.
State officials have attempted to shift some of the blame to the city’s leaders, he observed. But the mayor and City Council had “zero authority” to make decisions about the water system because the emergency manager usurped that authority, he said, adding, “This is a state failure.”
The EPA did question the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality when a water specialist at the agency raised concerns about Flint, Kildee said. “They continued to ask, [but] they were told that it was under control when it was not,” he said.
Regional EPA Administrator Susan Hedman, who has been criticized for not responding to the crisis sooner, resigned on Jan. 21. Some lawmakers at the hearing alleged that she tried to silence the whistle-blowers who first raised concerns.
When the issue first surfaced in 2015, Virginia Tech engineering professor Marc Edwards forcefully called attention to the elevated lead levels in Flint’s drinking water. At the hearing, he blasted the EPA and testified that utilities across the country are inconsistent in complying with the EPA’s so-called Lead and Copper Rule, which requires regular water-quality monitoring and sampling. He also said EPA officials are ineffective in enforcing it.
“Fix the EPA Lead and Copper Rule and fix the EPA,” he urged.
EPA last revised the regulation in 2007 and currently is working on a tougher, more stringent rule, said Jael Beauvais, the agency’s deputy assistant administrator in the Office of Water, who also testified at the hearing.
But the revisions won’t be finalized until some time in 2017, Beauvais said. Until then, “we will be working with states to strengthen their implementation” of the rule, he noted.
Meanwhile, Flint is trying to recover from a water disaster that may have contaminated up to 9,000 children with lead and caused residents to lose their hair, break out in rashes and vomit.
The newly elected mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver (D), on Feb. 2 announced that the city would be leaning on the expertise of the Lansing Board of Water and Light, which has been replacing its lead service lines since 2004 and hopes to have them all replaced by June 2017, says board spokesman Steve Serkaian.
The utility developed a cutter tool that simultaneously pulls out old lead lines and puts in new copper ones—a more efficient method than digging up dirt to run service lines from the main pipeline into homes, he says.
Flint is thought to have some 15,000 lead service lines. He said Flint officials will have to decide whether they will replace the lines over several years, as Lansing has, or whether “they will marshall a larger force” to complete the work in a year or two. “It’s a huge undertaking,” he notes.
Some local groups have started a petition to recall Gov. Snyder, and a Justice Dept. probe into the crisis is underway.