Posted on September 15, 2016
Congress in recent years has not really been in the business of solving core public welfare problems like safe drinking water. Today the Senate, however, has taken a major step forward by passing the 2016 Water Resources and Development Act, S. 2848. WRDA bills are the annual appropriations bills to shore up the nation’s water service infrastructure. The Senate bill would provide $9.4 billion for water projects, hydrology and flood control, including $4.9 billion to address aging municipal water systems.
By and large, Americans take for granted that their municipal water supply systems deliver abundant, wholesome and safe drinking water. Water borne illnesses are rare in this country, and the professionals I know that operate these systems take their jobs seriously and feel the weight of the responsibility. And yet, there are colossal failures putting public health at risk—like Flint.
The Flint debacle reflects a complete absence of professional water management. The problem there was a change in water supply, and the failure to add commonly available corrosion inhibiting chemicals to the water to prevent lead pipelines from leaching lead into Flint homes. What should have been an inexpensive operational measure became a billion dollar pipe replacement project. And that figure doesn’t include the long-term costs to address health effects of drinking the water, not to mention the cost of a different kind of corrosion, that of the public trust.
But even well-managed municipal water systems, including those that tout the high quality of the supply, can have serious lead problems. My town of Portland, Oregon, has one of the purest water sources in the country, the Bull Run water shed on Mt. Hood. The water is so soft, however, that it has a corrosive effect. Luckily Portland doesn’t have lead service pipes like Flint, but many older homes have lead solder in their plumbing, resulting in Portland exceeding lead drinking water standardsin high risk households and schools.
The Portland Water Bureauis taking steps to address the lead problem, like raising the pH level in the water to minimize lead leaching. But Portland’s water rates are among the highest in the country, and the cost of maintaining safe water supplies is only going up. There is a practical limit to how high water rates can go, and communities with fewer resources than Portland struggle to keep up.
This is where the federal government is supposed to step in, to address problems that exceed local capacities to protect the public. Although a little late in coming, S. 2848 is a mostly bipartisan bill, which if enacted could move the needle in the right direction. Let’s hope this bill gets through the House and to the President for signing without further delay.
Posted on February 11, 2016
There is no safe blood lead level in children.
In following the inexplicable regulatory missteps in the Flint public water supply debacle, I could not help but think of the progress that has been made in removing lead from the environment and out of our children’s blood. In spending my professional career addressing environmental issues and problems from a state, federal and private practice perspective, I often have wondered what difference does it make. In the case of lead, we can actually measure our progress and success.
As a teenager, I filled my ‘54 Ford with regular leaded gasoline. Lead was not only in gasoline, it was everywhere. Recognizing the significant and often irreversible health effects of lead, regulatory programs were initiated at the federal, state, and local levels to “get the lead out.” The implementation of these programs reduced or eliminated lead from gasoline, foods and food packaging, house paint, water pipes, plumbing fixtures, and solder used in plumbing and drink cans.
Did these programs work? In 1978, approximately 13.5 million children aged 1-5 had blood lead levels (BLLs) greater than or equal to 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL) of blood, which was until recently the level of concern recommended by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The recommended level is now 5 ug/dL. Also, back in the 70s, the average BLL was approximately 15 ug/dL. Black children and children living in low-income families were at greater risk.
We have come a long way from the 70s. The average BLL in children dropped to 1.4 ug/dL by 2008. Below is a table graphically demonstrating this dramatic decrease in BLLs. The table is based on data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971 – 2008, taken from a CDC report, Lead in Drinking Water and Human Blood Lead Levels in the United States, August 10, 2012.
As we beat ourselves up over the mistakes in Flint, we should take a moment to reflect on and be re-energized by the demonstrable success of these regulatory programs. What we have done has made a difference! Flint reminds us that more must still be done.
Timeline of lead poisoning prevention policies and blood lead levels in children aged 1–5 years, by year — National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, United States, 1971–2008
Posted on February 4, 2016
With busloads of concerned citizens from Flint and nearby cities gathered around the Rayburn House Office Building on February 3, environmental regulators and science experts appeared before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (Committee) to give testimony regarding lead contamination in Flint, Michigan’s public drinking water. As detailed in this recent NPR podcast, well worth the 40 minute listen, between 6,000 and 12,000 children are estimated to have elevated blood lead levels following the City’s drinking water source change from Detroit water to water from the Flint River in 2014.
How could a crisis like this have happened? While at first water policy groups were quick to highlight the nation’s aging water infrastructure and investment gap – EPA’s most recent estimate is that $384 billion is needed to assure safe drinking water from 2013 to 2030 – and certainly lead pipes to homes in older communities is a costly replacement problem – at the root of Flint was classic government dysfunction combined with assessments of safety that make sense to regulators but perhaps not to everyday people. At the hearing Joel Beauvais, acting Assistant Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Water faced questions from Committee members about the Agency’s delayed response to the situation, while the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s acting Director Keith Creagh was to explain why state officials did not act to address contamination immediately. Both officials attributed the crisis to breakdown in communication between the agencies that inhibited officials’ swift action. What happened in Flint “was avoidable and should have never happened,” according to Beauvais; while Creagh’s testimony stated that “[w]e all share responsibility in the Flint water crisis, whether it’s the city, the state, or the federal government… We all let the citizens of Flint down.”
The hearing ultimately took on a forward look, noting a reaffirmed commitment to protecting public health. “We do have clear standards. We do have clear accountability, so we have a clear path forward, said Creagh. “We are working in conjunction with the city, the state and federal government to ensure it doesn’t happen again.” Beauvais noted “it is imperative that Michigan, other states, EPA and drinking water system owners and operators nationwide work together and take steps to ensure that this never happens again.”
EPA and Michigan state and local officials are now in non-stop mode to ensure that prompt, concerted efforts are taken to address public health hazards. Members of Congress are introducing bills to fund Flint’s systems and to aid the affected citizens. Even philanthropic groups are stepping in. EPA’s Inspector General is doing a deep dive into the Agency’s response, Michigan Governor Snyder is seeking answers, and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into criminal aspects of the matter. Flint’s drinking water will get better – and yet the affected population may never fully recover from their excessive lead exposures.
The #FlintWaterCrisis is a sober reminder of the need to keep the nexus between environmental quality regulation and public health protection very tight. As professionals in the environmental field, we cannot fear having frank conversations in the open about risks – and the importance of taking precautionary steps – when human health is at issue.
Posted on June 30, 2010
No one doubts that EPA’s war on lead-based paint serves the cause of mitigating an established health threat. With children being particularly at risk, the regulations to date have focused on lead-based paint in older homes and other “child-occupied facilities.” On May 6, 2010, however, EPA gave notice of its intent to take the battle to an undefined set of commercial and public buildings. Can a full-scale assault on commercial facilities, which will involve a more complex set of regulatory variables and which will venture farther from the core health risk concerns, succeed in achieving a proper balance of competing factors?
EPA’s May 6, 2010 Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking announcing the next step in the lead-based paint campaign was published only days after the April 22, 2010 effective date of the controversial Renovation, Repair and Painting Rule (“RRP Rule”). That rule regulates renovation and repair activities disturbing lead-based paint in older homes and child-occupied facilities. The RRP Rule affects contractors, landlords and others who perform RRP work for compensation.
The RRP Rule includes provisions for the required certification (for a fee) of firms performing covered RRP work, the training and certification (at a significant cost) of “Certified Renovators” through EPA-accredited classes, the required use of detailed RRP work practices when performing covered activities, the retention of compliance records, and the verification of compliance with work practice obligations. Even though the RRP Rule has a relatively narrow focus - residences and other child-occupied facilities - its requirements have generated substantial controversy.
Because the RRP Rule applies to numerous trades and contractors, as well as to certain landlords and other persons, issues related to obtaining the required training, safe implementation of the work practice requirements, costs of compliance and the possibility of a $37,500 per day, per violation penalty are only now being confronted by the regulated community as well as the regulators. Small contractors may be forced out of business, impacting competition. Needed RRP work may not be performed due to cost. Lead-contaminated waste disposal will create new environmental/health problems partially offsetting the benefits of the RRP Rule. Suffice it to say, EPA has not yet solved the numerous problems and complexities of implementing even these regulations focused on older homes and child-occupied facilities.
With this background, and setting aside for the moment legal mandates, one can reasonably question whether EPA is prepared to set its sights on a significantly more complex regulatory challenge- the renovation and repair of an estimated two to three million commercial and public facilities constructed prior to 1980. The ANPR includes no proposed language. Rather, the public is invited to respond to over 100 detailed questions and data requests.
At this time, the scope of EPA’s assault on the renovation and repair of commercial and public buildings is unknown. No current limitations on covered “commercial” and “public” buildings exist and both exterior and interior renovation and repair work are included in the ANPR. Unresolved questions include: What renovation and repair work should be covered? What activities create the most risk? Should exposure pathways be broadened to include nearby properties? How should the substantial amount of lead-contaminated waste be handled to avoid creating a different health and environmental hazard?
This much is known. The regulatory variables associated with extending the war on lead-based paint to commercial and public buildings are more numerous and the targeted health risks have expanded. I suggest that there is a real possibility that the regulations could fail to appropriately balance the legitimate interests of contractors, building owners and the public with the known and perceived health risks. Let us hope that the regulated community weighs-in on these issues and that the EPA gives careful thought to this next step in its campaign against lead-based paint.
The public comment period for this proposal ends July 6, 2010.