EPA Watchdog Slams Agency’s Response to Flint Tap Water Crisis
WASHINGTON – The Environmental Protection Agency failed to respond quickly and forcefully enough to the crisis of lead in the tap water of Flint, Mich., in 2014, the agency’s inspector general said in a report today. EWG said the report should push the Trump administration to take immediate steps to safeguard the nation’s drinking water from lead contamination and reduce children’s exposure to the potent neurotoxin.
The report said Michigan regulators shared responsibility for the multiple failures that led to 12,000 children’s exposure to extremely high levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water. But it said that as the crisis emerged, the EPA did not move quickly or efficiently to protect the city’s residents from prolonged exposure to lead.
“While oversight authority is vital, its absence can contribute to a catastrophic situation,” said EPA Inspector General Arthur A. Elkins. “This report urges the EPA to strengthen its oversight of state drinking water programs now so that the agency can act quickly in times of emergency.”
“The responsibility of protecting America’s children from further exposure to this brain-damaging neurotoxin ultimately falls on President Trump and his EPA,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “Public health crises like the tragedy in Flint are almost certainly unfolding in other communities throughout the nation. Unless the agency ensures that regular testing occurs and strengthens outdated lead regulations, children in hundreds of communities could be exposed to lead at home, and in schools and day care facilities.”
The EPA inspector general’s report comes one day after the Government Accountability Office released a report showing that, in 2015, more than half of U.S. schools either did not test their tap water for lead or didn’t know whether they had tested.
The inspector general’s report recommended that the EPA put in place controls to ensure both state and local governments are fully complying with lead testing regulations, and move quickly to modernize the woefully outdated federal Lead and Copper Rule.
Currently, the rule says whenever lead concentrations exceed the EPA’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion, or ppb, in more than 10 percent of customer taps sampled, the water utility must take action to control lead leaching from the pipes. Shockingly, for school water systems, the EPA’s action level for lead is 20 ppb, or one-third higher than the action level for public water systems.
New studies show that the existing federal action level for lead in water does not protect children’s health. The official position of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that no safe blood lead level in children has been identified.
In 2009, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment set a public health goal level of 0.2 ppb for lead in drinking water to protect against harms to the brains and nervous systems of children. A 2017 analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund found that water lead concentrations greater than 3.8 ppb may put formula-fed babies at risk of elevated blood lead levels.
The only permanent solution to the nationwide crisis of lead in tap water is to replace lead-based water pipes. The federal government must require faster replacement of lead-based water service lines, and also ensure replacement of the portions of pipes that run from streets to home entrances.
EWG urges the federal government to set a protective legal limit for lead in drinking water, as it does for other water contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA should mandate more aggressive action to monitor both schools and homes for lead contamination, and require water companies to speed up their plans to replace water service lines.