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Water systems across country repeatedly exceed federal lead standards

An Associated Press investigation of Environmental Protection Agency records has found nearly 1,400 water systems providing tap water to nearly 4 million Americans exceeded the acceptable lead level at least once between 2013 and 2015. AP Reporter Meghan Hoyer, who co-wrote a story on the investigation, joined Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the problem.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS ANCHOR:

    Looking beyond the lead-tainted drinking water crisis in the city of Flint, Michigan, an Associated Press investigation of Environmental Protection Agency records has found nearly 1,400 water systems providing tap water to nearly 4 million Americans exceeded the acceptable lead level at least once between 2013 and 2015.

    AP reporter Megan Hoyer co-wrote the story "Tainted at the Tap" and joins me now from Washington, D.C. How wide-ranging is this? Is this every part of the country geographically? Is it size of cities, big and small?

  • MEGAN HOYER, AP REPORTER:

    It is. What we found were – we looked at roughly 77,000 water systems across the U.S. And what we found was, you know, the ones that had lead limit levels that were higher than the federal standard ranged in – they were in almost every state, and they ranged from very small systems with 20 or 25 customers to very large systems. We saw cities and counties that served hundreds of thousands of people that had repeatedly been over the limit.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And you also point to the fact that the notifications were different from town to town and how people felt like whether they really knew that there was a danger or not differed.

  • MEGAN HOYER:

    So when a system is over the federal lead limit, it has 60 days to put out a notification to its customers telling them that there's been lead found in the water. And what we've found were those notifications were often written in a way that was confusing to customers. Where customers didn't understand the severity of the problem. They were told to simply run their water for 30 seconds to two minutes, and that would flush a lot of the lead out of the water. They were told that the systems were aware of the problem and were working toward it, but a lot of these systems had had problems for years and years.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Your recent story focused in on Galesburg, Illinois. And one of the things that you end up highlighting is that there seems to be a gap between when the EPA comes up with the results of these tests and the county leadership and what they can do about it.

  • MEGAN HOYER:

    There is a real disconnect from what we've found in the water systems versus what health departments were looking at. Basically, they're focusing on things like lead in – lead paint in homes and lead in toys. But they're not even looking at the water system oftentimes as a source of some of these problems. And there's been more of a push now nationally to get water systems and health officials working more in cohort on these kinds of issues.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Given that the absolute solution is to go ahead and rip out all the pipes and put in new ones, that is a multibillion – trillion dollar type of problem. So where do the cities stop with their responsibility, and where does the private owner of the water or the recipient of the water – where does their responsibility start?

  • MEGAN HOYER:

    The problem with most of these water systems is not the water main itself or the water supply. It's those pipes that lead from your water main to your house or to your business. And that's mostly on the homeowner or the business owner to replace. A lot of cities and counties are doing some work to try to fund some of this replacement. They're offering interest-free loans or grants to homeowners. They're doing some of the work themselves.

    But this is an extremely expensive problem that's going to take years and years to fix.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Megan Hoyer of the Associated Press. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • MEGAN HOYER:

    Thank you.

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