Flint, Lake Erie algae help stir Obama’s EPA to start drafting drinking water action plan
The Obama administration is launching a new initiative to safeguard the nation’s drinking water supply — an effort Gov. Rick Snyder’s spokeswoman says doesn’t appear to do enough to protect the public’s health.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday began development of a “national action plan” on drinking water, according to a blog post written by Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator in the EPA’s Office of Water. It is in response to public health calamities such as Flint’s lead contamination crisis and summertime algal blooms on western Lake Erie.
“The crisis in Flint, Michigan has brought to the forefront the challenges many communities across the country are facing, including from lead pipes that carry their drinking water and uneven publicly available information around drinking water quality,” Beauvais wrote.
Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton said the administration welcomes the EPA’s new initiative, but said the Democratic administration doesn’t go far enough.
“It’s good to see EPA’s recognition of the problem, as the presence of lead in drinking water is not isolated to Flint,” Heaton said in an email to The Detroit News. “Unfortunately, the EPA’s plan makes no attempt at revising the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which failed Flint residents and will continue failing other communities nationwide.”
Flint’s lead contamination crisis was caused when the city’s water treatment plant failed to treat river water with corrosion control chemicals. Officials in the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have admitted they didn’t require the city to add corrosion controls because they believed Flint had to conduct two six-month studies of the water for lead levels
Snyder has blamed the breakdown at the Michigan DEQ, in part, on a misinterpretation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, calling the complex regulatory scheme “dumb and dangerous.”
Earlier this month, Snyder proposed a state-level Lead and Copper rule that would lower the threshold for taking action on lead levels from 15 parts per billion — the federal standard — to 10 parts per billion.
The Republican governor said he wants to create a “higher standard faster” than the EPA, which doesn’t plan to toughen its regulation of toxic lead in drinking water until next year.
Snyder has said he accepts responsibility for the Flint crisis but blames “career bureaucrats” with an “absolute lack of common sense” for the lead contamination. Some Democratic members of Congress and Michigan House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel of Auburn Hills have called for his resignation.
The Snyder administration’s plan also calls for elimination of all lead water service lines in older cities in Michigan within a decade.
Separately, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said Tuesday it has initiated a study of the science and technology used to keep contaminants out of the drinking water supply.
Rosina Bierbaum and Christine Cassel, co-chairs of the White House’s advisory group of scientists and engineers, said the study will examine the best practices for detecting and monitoring water contamination and remediation.
“The results of the study will help inform future action to ensure that all Americans have affordable access to high-quality water when and where they need it,” Bierbaum and Cassel wrote in a White House blog post.
Bierbaum is a natural resources and environmental policy professor at the University of Michigan. Cassel is a national expert in geriatric medicine and medical ethics.
The EPA is focused on getting communities in compliance with “the current Lead and Copper rule,” Beauvais said.
“EPA has already intensified our work with state drinking water programs with a priority focus on implementation of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, including directing EPA staff to meet with officials from every state to make sure they’re addressing any high lead levels and fully implementing the current rule,” Beauvais wrote.
An environmental group welcomed the Obama initiative.
“We are encouraged to see an integrated approach to drinking water issues — this is exactly what EPA needs to do,” said Michael Kelly, spokesman for Clean Water Action in Washington, D.C. “It will ensure that action to protect our water, invest in water systems, and put drinking water first are a main concern for elected officials and regulators.
“If the recent water crises in Flint, Toledo and Charleston (South Carolina) have shown us anything, it’s that our drinking water infrastructure needs to be a top public priority.”