18 million people served by water systems with lead violations in 2015, report says

More than 18 million Americans received their drinking water from systems with lead violations in 2015, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The research indicates more than 5,000 community waterway systems nationwide break the Lead and Copper Rule, a federal regulation managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This law requires that water utilities avoid unnecessary exposure to high lead in water by using remedial measures, including corrosion control, lead pipe replacement and public education.

Many violations in the listed communities, including Flint, Michigan, are not entered into the EPA’s database, according to the report entitled What’s in Your Water? Flint and Beyond.

“Basically, there’s no cop on the beat,” said Erik Olson, health program director at NRDC.

The environmental advocacy group found that 90 percent of the violations in drinking water systems faced no formal enforcement, and only 3 percent faced penalties. Olson said shoddy data collection, lax enforcement of the law and cities gaming the system have created unsafe drinking water conditions for millions of people across the nation.

In regards to under reported violations in EPA’s database system, the following disclaimer can be found on the agency’s website:

“EPA is aware of inaccuracies and underreporting of some data in the Safe Drinking Water Information System. We are working with the states to improve the quality of the data.”

Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech who exposed the lead crisis in Flint, was not surprised by NRDC’s findings. His extensive research on water pollution has uncovered high levels of lead in major water systems, such as in Washington D.C. a decade ago.

“This is what we’ve been screaming to EPA about since 2004,” Edwards told PBS NewsHour.

Edwards believes the EPA needs to take greater strides to follow and enforce the Lead and Copper Rule. He says that he has written the agency on multiple occasions expressing his concern for the situation, but has yet to see any results.

In an email to the NewsHour, EPA spokesperson Monica Lee stated her agency recognizes the ongoing challenges in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule. Lee said the EPA works closely with state agencies, which are the first line of oversight of drinking water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and therefore perform the majority of enforcement actions.

“The agency has intensified work with state drinking water programs with a priority focus on implementation of the rule, including engagement with every state drinking water program across the country to ensure they are addressing any high lead levels and fully implementing the current rule,” Lee wrote.

According to the report, not every resident served by these systems is known to have excessive lead in their water, because only a small percentage of homes were tested, and lead levels can vary from home to home. However, industry estimates say that from 15 million to 22 million Americans are served drinking water through lead service lines, the pipes connecting a residence to the water main that can release lead into tap water.

EPA stated that their officials are responding to lead contamination violations with technical or compliance assistance, issuing notices of violation, or formal administrative or judicial enforcement action. Many water systems with violations in 2015 are already working with state regulators and the EPA to resolve past issues and return to compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule.

“Americans take it for granted that the water flowing from their home taps is clean and safe, but all too often, that assumption is wrong,” Olson said.