Our Editorial: Put priority on enforcing EPA lead regs
Of the recommendations issued last week by a task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder on how to solve what went wrong in Flint, few are more important than fixing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule, which provides for control and monitoring of contaminant levels in drinking water.
In Flint and other cities throughout the country, the rule has failed to protect residents, including thousands of children. But to ensure that drinking water throughout the U.S. can meet federal standards, changes must be made to how water is analyzed and how the EPA is legally required to act when a city’s supply is threatened.
Perhaps one of the biggest problems with the rule is that it essentially allows for 10 percent of samples from a city’s water supply to be above acceptable lead levels. What that means in actuality is that unusually high samples are often disregarded.
In Flint, that discrepancy meant the letter of the law was followed, but clearly the spirit of it was not enforced.
The state task force report recommends the EPA “clarify and strengthen the LCR through increased specificity and constraints, particularly requirements related to LCR sampling pools, sample draw protocols and lead service lines replacements.”
The EPA should also potentially lower the action level for lead contamination, which is currently 15 parts per billion. The World Health Organization holds no amount of lead is safe for human consumption, and the Centers for Disease Control recently lowered its 10 micrograms/deciliter “blood lead level of concern” to a 5 micrograms/deciliter “reference level.”
The report also recommends the EPA “strengthen enforcement protocols with agencies delegated primacy,” which in the case of Flint was the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
That’s another solid recommendation and an issue Virginia Tech researcher Marc Edwards has tried to draw attention to since the Flint crisis began. He said the EPA routinely ignores lackadaisical enforcement by cities and states in monitoring their water supplies.
“I wrote the EPA a letter in 2010 and called them out because I was at a meeting where someone talked about cheating on lead and copper,” he said in an interview with The News. “They did nothing.”
In addition to being the first person to take complaints from Flint residents seriously, Edwards also discovered high lead levels in Washington, D.C.’s water a decade ago. His work there showed much of what the Flint report also found.
The report also addresses the replacement of lead service lines, recommending the requirements be clarified so that utilities can’t count a line as being “replaced” if it simply “tests under the lead action limit in a one-time sample.”
It also recommends lead service line replacement should be mandated for utilities in a way that balances potential risks and financial burdens.
Additionally, the report recommends barring partial lead service line replacement, which has been found to actually increase risks of elevated blood levels.
As Flint navigates the process of replacing some or all of its lead service lines, these guidelines will be critical. And it can set an example for other cities throughout the country which are now turning their attention to potential lead problems.
Snyder called the Lead and Copper Rule “dumb and dangerous” during a congressional hearing, and unless changes are made to sampling protocol and enforcement, it will continue to be ineffective.