TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. >> The Obama administration said Monday it would keep a closer watch on state agencies in charge of drinking water safety, urging them to prevent more cases such as Flint, Michigan, where the system has been tainted with lead.
In addition to double-checking their procedures for treatment and sampling, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said states should bolster confidence in public water systems by making information such as lead and copper testing results and the location of lead water pipes available online.
“Clearly there’s public concern and understandably so, given the seriousness of the events in Flint,” Joel Beauvais, the EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for water, said in a phone interview.
In a letter to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said her staffers would meet with leaders of all state drinking water programs to make sure they are properly carrying out and enforcing federal rules on lead and copper pollution.
“I ask that you encourage your state agency to give this effort the highest priority, consistent with our shared commitment and partnership to address lead risks,” McCarthy said.
Similar letters were being sent to governors of the other states that oversee compliance with the federal lead and copper rule, part of the Safe Water Drinking Act. All states do so except Wyoming, which relies on the EPA for the task, as does Washington, D.C.
A task force appointed by Snyder said in December the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was primarily to blame for the Flint crisis because it didn’t require the city to treat its water with anti-corrosive chemicals after beginning to draw from the Flint River in 2014.
Flint stopped buying Lake Huron water from Detroit and switched temporarily to the river, a move designed to save money for the impoverished city of nearly 100,000 until it could join a new system that also would use lake water but hadn’t finished building the infrastructure.
Shortly afterward, residents began complaining of problems with the river water’s taste, smell and appearance. Unsafe levels of E. coli bacteria prompted boil-water advisories. After denying it for months, state officials acknowledged last fall that water reaching some homes and schools was contaminated with lead.
The EPA issued a memo last November to clarify requirements for corrosion controls. Michigan officials had believed the rule allowed Flint to test the water for two six-month periods before deciding whether controls were needed. Beauvais said for larger cities such as Flint, corrosion controls are required at all times.
The agency has been working for years on a proposed update of the rule, which it expects to complete in 2017.
In addition to McCarthy’s letter to governors, Beauvais wrote separately to state environmental agency chiefs asking them to confirm within 30 days that they are abiding by the regulations.
He recommended the agencies work with local water system officials to make sure the public gets prompt notifications about high lead levels in drinking water systems, as well as instructions on dealing with lead risks.
Michigan agrees with the proposals and is reviewing its compliance with the federal lead and copper rule, but the measure should be rewritten so that it “makes more sense” and provides stronger safeguards, said Ari Adler, spokesman for Snyder.
“What happened in Flint is a crisis, but Flint is not alone,” Adler said. “Many municipalities across the country could easily become the next Flint and, even if something that large doesn’t occur, it’s likely the current federal lead and copper rule isn’t doing enough to protect every resident of the United States from the dangers present within the lead pipes that are possibly running into their homes.”