America’s Tap Water: Too Much Contamination, Not Enough Reporting, Study Finds

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These include the story of a sinkhole outside Tampa, Fla., which opened up in September, leaking contaminated water and endangering a major aquifer; Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection took weeks to notify nearby residents.

Or Jim Hogg County, Tex., where thousands of people were exposed to high levels of arsenic in their drinking water for years, according to a report last year from the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit group based in Washington.

Or Flint, Mich., where sky-high levels of lead in tap water were widely publicized in 2015 — led not by the E.P.A., but by Flint residents who enlisted allies including Marc Edwards, a scientist at Virginia Tech, who played a major role in bringing the crisis to national attention.

Mr. Edwards said he agreed with the resources defense council’s conclusion that the government has not done enough to enforce regulations on drinking water safety.

“This has been tolerated so long, and it is so ingrained in the E.P.A. culture to look the other way,” he said. “They’re going to need outside pressure to act and enforce existing laws.”

The council’s report found that there were around 80,000 reported violations of drinking water safety regulations in 2015. Of those, more than 12,000 were “health-based” violations, or cases that involved actual contamination problems. In addition, the N.R.D.C. said, “repercussions for violations were virtually nonexistent. Nearly nine in 10 violations were subject to no formal action.”

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A registered nurse, Brian Jones, drew a blood sample from a student at Eisenhower Elementary School in Flint, Mich., in 2016 to test for lead after the metal was found in the city’s drinking water. Credit Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Ms. Wu said that data is “not sexy,” making it hard to use in pushing for meaningful actions like investment in national infrastructure maintenance. “For drinking water infrastructure, like the pipes and the mains, it’s out of sight, out of mind — until the main breaks outside your house, and you can’t drink your own water,” she said.

She added that part of the difficulty in fixing these problems comes down to a complicated regulatory system, in which the responsibility to monitor adherence to federal laws falls largely to states. The report, which relied on data collected by the E.P.A. itself, includes a list of 12 states with the most water safety violations based on population; it is topped by Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said the state has been in charge of enforcing the Safe Water Drinking Act since 1977. Asked about cases like the high arsenic levels documented in some parts of the state, she said that Texas was working with finite amounts of groundwater, adding that “as of March 2017, 96 percent of Texas’ population is served by public water systems that are meeting drinking-water standards.”

President Trump has said he is in favor of infrastructure investment, and he told The Times last year on the campaign trail that “crystal clear water” was important to him. But both he and the new E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, support proposals to cut the E.P.A. budget by as much as 31 percent, something the N.R.D.C. says represents “a new threat to the nation’s water supplies.”

And if the report did not shy away from politics, neither did the E.P.A.

“Under the new leadership, the E.P.A. has made clear it is getting back to its core mission, which includes protecting America’s drinking water. Unfortunately, this is an area in which the past administration failed,” said Lincoln Ferguson, an E.P.A. spokesman, in an emailed statement responding to the report.

“Administrator Pruitt is committed to helping modernize our country’s outdated water infrastructure in order to ensure we maintain safe drinking water for the more than 300 million people that depend on it daily.”

That is not entirely off the mark, said Mr. Edwards, adding that the water problem is partly a result of what he called misplaced priorities. “I think the E.P.A. has taken their eye off the ball when it comes to clean water and air, and they were focused on other things,” he said, offering climate change as an example.

E.P.A. documents like the 2014-2018 strategic plan put climate change first on the list of priorities — a worthy cause, in Mr. Edwards’ view, but one that is often politicized and has difficulty attracting funding. He said water safety regulation and infrastructure maintenance are basic needs that have been neglected by officials — and poor Americans are suffering the most.

“I am hopeful that this is something we can have bipartisan agreement on,” he said. “This is un-American, what’s happening.”

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Source: New York Times

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