Arlington, Va. — Flint area officials and others joined a water quality expert Wednesday in railing against the federal law that they say put city residents at risk of drinking lead-contaminated water during the past year and a half.
Flint’s crisis began in April 2014, when the city stopped buying water from the the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and, in a money-saving move, started drawing its water from the Flint River — a decision that had immediate repercussions. It led to foul odors, strange taste, smell and appearance of the water and later to the discovery in August by a local pediatrician of high levels of lead in children, despite the assurance of state and city officials that the water was safe to drink.
“What happened in Flint is a failure of government,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township. “People expected the government, at multiple levels, would be able to protect them... And government failed them.”
Residents and experts criticized the implementation of the 25-year-old federal Lead and Copper rule Wednesday to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Drinking Water Advisory Council. The complaints come as lawmakers and regulators consider revisions to the rule.
The council will make recommendations to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, hopefully by year’s end, said Peter Grevatt, director of the EPA’s Office of Groundwater and Drinking Water.
“You look at a community like Flint, and you see really the traumatic experience that community has gone through,” Grevatt said.
The EPA already has taken steps, without revising the rule, to tell state regulators and EPA regional offices what the rule “intends for maintaining corrosion control ... when a system like Flint switches to a new source...,” such as studies and follow-up sampling, he said.
Critics of the Lead and Copper Rule say the legislation does little to protect the public. It allows for water samples to be collected, such as before there is flushing, that reduces the likelihood of lead discovery. They say it provides loopholes allowing cities to comply with federal testing standards regardless of whether the water is safe — leaving the public vulnerable to lead exposure.
“We were constantly being told our water was safe by the city” and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said LeAnne Walters, a Flint resident whose tap water registered severe spikes in the amount of lead when tested earlier this year.
After 25 years, the law still has not been implemented and enforced as originally intended, said Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech civil engineering professor whose water sampling has helped outline Flint’s contamination issues and who has criticized Michigan’s handling of the Flint crisis.
“What is so disconcerting about this case is that the parents had to figure out ... that their children were being poisoned from the water ... despite assurances from (government) agencies...,” Edwards said. “Those oft-repeated assurances about safe water were completely false.”
He said officials are wary of changing the lead rule in a way that would require alerting potentially millions of residents nationwide that their water is not safe.
“What’s being proposed is that we throw out the old rule and create a whole new regime, where utilities basically just do the best job that they can to replace lead pipe,” Edwards said.
“That’s a noble goal and well-intentioned. But they’re not wanting to face the reality that we have to tell people there’s a problem with their water now and try to do the best to fix it....”
Part of the problem is the high cost of replacing lead plumbing and service lines, he said. Utilities highlight another practical problem — residents who deny access to their property for line replacement.
The EPA estimates that across the country there are 10 million lead service lines – those running from a water main to someone’s home.
In an interview, Kildee agreed that presuming the water was safe is “a very dangerous presumption to make.”
“My view is if you are a regulator concerned with public health, you better have some serious curiosity about questions like that,” he said.
The congressman said switching to an “uncertain” drinking-water source such as the Flint River without thorough testing and modeling is a failure either of the Lead and Copper Rule or adherence to it.
“One thing that is pretty clear to me is there was a lack of curiosity at the enforcement level about whether or not this change had public health implications,” Kildee said.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a Hurley Medical Center pediatrician who helped uncover rising lead levels in Flint children, joined Edwards in warning that what happened in her city is likely happening elsewhere around the country.
The severity of lead poisoning, with its impacts on childhood development that can take years and generations to track, make the situation unacceptable, she said.
“When (lead) is in a population, it’s damning, absolutely damning,” Hanna-Attisha said. “And it’s preventable.”
The pediatrician spoke about a 1-year-old patient, Makayla, whose blood showed elevated lead levels.
Hanna-Attisha said Makayla will likely experience a decrease in her IQ. Evidence from studies also suggests an increased likelihood of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Lead poisoning disproportionately affects low-income and minority children, she told the council.
Hanna-Attisha strongly disagrees with a recommendation to revise the Lead and Copper Rule to make water testing for lead voluntary instead of mandatory.
“Many of the people here are from water utility companies, and they don’t want to have to pay for water-line replacements,” she said in an interview after her testimony. “It’s all about money.”
Walters, co-founder of Water You Fighting For, agreed the rule needs to be enforced, not made voluntary.
“What happened in Flint isn’t a first-time thing, and it needs to not happen again anywhere in the United States,” she said.
“We need to close the loopholes in the Lead and Copper Rule, to make sure no other children are harmed. This isn’t just a Flint problem or D.C. problem. This is a national problem.”