Center for American Progress

D.C. Drinking Water Crisis Highlights Nationwide Problem, Bush Neglect




Washington, D.C., health officials recently contradicted years of public assurances and revealed that the local tap water is unsafe for thousands of children and pregnant women. The problem: Old city pipes, some installed more than 100 years ago, are leaching lead and for some homes contaminating the water at more than 10 times EPA’s action level requiring corrective measures. More disconcerting, EPA officials and the local water utility knew about this contamination for more than a year, and declined to inform the public; only after the Washington Post exposed the problem in January was action taken.

The question now is, could other serious tap water problems be lurking elsewhere in the United States? Unfortunately, the answer is yes – and even worse, the Bush administration has taken several steps, including budget cuts and enforcement rollbacks, that exacerbate this threat.

In cities and towns across the nation, there has been a serious lack of investment in upgrading and even maintaining basic drinking water infrastructure, a problem that is likely to become a bona fide national crisis if there is not a major infusion of resources. A survey by my organization, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), found that about nine out of 10 major cities use World War I-era treatment technology for their drinking water – which cannot remove many contaminants of concern in the 21st century – while aging water pipes are also commonplace. In addition to possibly leaching lead, these pipes cause significant, widespread water loss – including more than 200,000 water-main bursts a year – as well as a constellation of other major problems, such as growth of dangerous bacteria. City sewer systems are similarly in dire straits, with raw sewage discharges common in many areas every time there is a storm.

Water experts project a $230 billion shortfall to meet the roughly $500 billion in needed investments to refurbish the nation’s water and sewer systems over the next 10 years. Nonetheless, the Bush administration recently proposed to freeze funding for the drinking water State Revolving Fund (SRF) – the trust fund that bankrolls state programs to renovate drinking water systems – at $850 million, $150 million below the authorized amount, and slash nearly $500 million from the clean water SRF, the parallel fund for modernizing aging sewer systems, which is currently allotted $1.34 billion. This would leave the total federal SRF water investment at just $1.7 billion, a substantial decrease from past years and far lower than what’s needed. (By contrast, the president secured about $4 billion in funding for Iraqi water infrastructure in the recent $87 billion Iraq appropriation.)

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has declined to enforce drinking water standards, potentially allowing lead and other contamination problems to fester. Inspections of drinking water plants have dropped 50 percent under President Bush, and penalties for violations have taken a similar nose dive. This sends a clear signal to water utilities that they can violate basic health and safety standards, or withhold information from their customers about tap water contamination, without fear of sanction.

The administration is apparently even willing to mislead the public to avoid taking action. According to a recent report from EPA’s Inspector General (IG), senior Bush officials falsely boasted that 94 percent of the U.S. population is now served by drinking water systems that meet EPA health standards. In fact, the IG’s report and internal agency documents show that EPA is well aware that compliance rates are actually far lower.

Unfortunately, precise compliance rates are unknown due to a serious breakdown in EPA’s drinking water program. EPA’s compliance database does not list four out of five known monitoring and reporting violations, and one-third of known health violations, according to the IG’s review and recent EPA audits. Of particular note, NRDC has been informed by EPA staff that contrary to federal rules, 20 states are not reporting any compliance information for lead in tap water, meaning that EPA cannot document the national extent of lead contamination.

What we do have is a growing list of examples that suggest a larger problem is brewing. Lead contamination has recently emerged in Northern Virginia, and numerous other cities have also struggled with the problem in recent years (including Seattle, communities in greater Boston, St. Paul, Minn., Bangor, Maine, Madison, Wis., Ridgewood and Newark, N.J., and Oneida, N.Y., among others). Some of these cities assert that they are now in compliance with lead standards, but EPA has done little to ensure that this is true; amazingly, the agency maintains no accurate up-to-date national information for internal and public verification.

In addition, school systems across the country, including in Seattle, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and many others, have found serious lead contamination, but often have been slow to inform parents and resolve the problem. Many other school systems, enabled by EPA passivity, have simply failed to test at all. For example, Montgomery County, Md., discovered lead contamination in one high school five years ago, but did not perform comprehensive countywide testing until the D.C. lead crisis came to light – which not surprisingly turned up widespread contamination.

Needless to say, such negligence puts our children at substantial risk. Even in relatively small doses, lead can cause learning disabilities, poor attention spans, and reduced IQ. We can remove this threat through needed investments and stronger government action (as recently suggested by a bipartisan group of legislators from the House Government Reform Committee). Unfortunately, the Bush administration has so far failed to forcefully respond. It’s past time to get the lead out.

Erik Olson is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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