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Investigations reveal startling scope of lead in drinking water

December 20, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
On Tuesday, Michigan’s attorney general filed new criminal charges in Flint’s lead contamination case. But Flint is not alone. Reports from both USA Today and Reuters find that lead contamination is widespread, affecting some millions of Americans, usually in rural communities with small water systems. Judy Woodruff speaks with Laura Ungar, the lead reporter on the USA Today investigation.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: As we reported earlier, Michigan’s attorney general filed criminal charges against city officials in Flint for operating that city’s water systems in an unsafe manner.

Well, it turns out Flint is not alone in having a lead contamination problem. Two recent news investigation find two startling numbers. A Reuters investigation of lead levels in blood found nearly 3,000 areas in the country with contamination levels higher than those in Flint.

And a USA Today report found that some four million Americans get water from utilities that do not meet federal safe drinking water standards.

Laura Ungar was a lead reporter on the USA Today investigation. And she joins me now.

Laura Ungar, welcome to the program.

You and your colleagues focused on smaller communities around the country. Why?

LAURA UNGAR, USA Today: Well, we wanted to look at the problem beyond Flint and look to see just how big the scope was.

And so, basically, we looked at where the problem was the worst, and we found that, in these small water systems, which are generally located in rural areas, small, remote communities, the problem was worse in those communities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And give us an example of what you found. You got a number of families you write about in this series.

LAURA UNGAR: Yes.

For example, one family in Ranger, Texas, they have a situation where their 2-year-old son has high levels of lead in his blood. And they lived there for about a year, almost a year, before finding out from a citywide letter that they had high lead in their city, in their city’s water supply.

And then they — actually, their tap was tested, and they didn’t find out the results of that from the city. They found it out from me, actually. I told them the levels that were found in their own tap.

So — and they were very upset about that situation, because, you know, their son is 2, and he’s facing high lead, which, as you know, just causes all sorts of problems with children.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, it wasn’t just this one small community. You found something like four million Americans affected.

LAURA UNGAR: Yes, it’s more than four million.

That four million is places where — or people affected by places that either tested improperly or skipped tests. There are even more than that when you talk about where high lead has been found and, in some cases, has not been fixed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why…

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt.

But why is it that some of these smaller communities don’t have the stringent regulations that larger population areas do?

LAURA UNGAR: What — the rationale that I have heard for the difference in the rules is the resource difference.

There’s a vastly different — vastly different resources between the large water systems in big cities and these small water systems which only serve a few thousand people. I mean, some of them are run by folks who may have another full-time job.

We found one place where, for example, a farmer/rancher ran a water system in his spare time. And he tried his best, but it’s part-time thing. And that’s a much different situation than in a large water system, where you might have very educated folks and large staffs dealing with water quality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, finally, who is responsible? The Environmental Protection Agency, I know you talked to them. What do they say? How do they explain it?

LAURA UNGAR: They — there’s layers of responsibility.

First of all, there’s the utility. There’s the states that are supposed to be enforcing those federal safe drinking water standards. And then, ultimately, the buck stops at the EPA.

The EPA does tell me that they are focusing on these small water systems, that they do hope to make improvements in this area. But it’s a multifaceted problem, and with no easy answers at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, some excellent reporting. And I know you are going to be following up on that.

Laura Ungar with USA Today, thank you.

LAURA UNGAR: Thank you.

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