Government Agencies Fail to Take Water Safety Seriously

Is my water safe to drink? This is a fundamental question that government officials should be able to answer without hesitation. Unfortunately for residents in East Chicago, the answer remains a troubling uncertainty.

This weekend, an EPA official was in East Chicago to address the various lead contamination issues facing the city. The EPA official, who claimed not to be a drinking water expert, did not answer the question of whether the water is safe to drink and instead turned the question back on residents, recommending that East Chicagoans decide if they should use a filter.

Background

In late 2016, EPA conducted a pilot study of East Chicago’s drinking water, concluding that elevated levels of lead were present in the water system and that the problem was “system-wide.” Rather than repeat the testing protocol EPA conducted to confirm or refute the federal government’s findings, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (“IDEM”) conducted its own testing with its own protocol and concluded last month that “with certainty… no system-wide lead issues are present in East Chicago’s drinking water system.”

EPA has since done little to clarify the situation. Since IDEM released its test results last month, EPA has toed a careful line of not contradicting IDEM’s conclusion. An official statement on the study from EPA is notably missing. EPA has not stated in any formal way whether it agrees with IDEM’s testing protocols and results, and has not opined on whether the water is currently safe to drink. In short, EPA has neither retracted nor modified its own original conclusion that there are system-wide elevated levels of lead and that residents throughout the city should use filters.

At the same time, EPA staff members have made public statements—such as at this weekend’s meeting over the Superfund site—suggesting they support the general conclusion that IDEM’s results reveal the water contamination issue is improving and residents can drink the water without use of filters.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to assess EPA’s official position on the overall safety of the water or the extent of the improvement, as the agency has dragged its feet on holding an in-person meeting with community groups and EPA drinking water experts over an emergency petition submitted by the groups in early March. EPA originally agreed to meet in May 2017, but has at least twice canceled and rescheduled the meeting at the last minute, and indicated that key technical experts would not be included in the meeting. And currently, no new date has been set.

Comparing EPA and IDEM’s Testing Protocols

IDEM claimed last month that its testing results reveal there is no system wide problem with lead in East Chicago. EPA has since dodged the question of the water’s safety. So should East Chicagoans be consuming the tap water? Unfortunately, the dearth of details on the methodology behind IDEM’s study and a closer look at the results should make state government officials more cautious about issuing confident statements on the safety of a drinking water system. All officials should be erring on the side of caution until testing results confirm unequivocally that the water is safe to consume.

First, the methodology—IDEM’s announcement last month left unanswered questions about the state agency’s testing methods. Answers to these questions are critical to understanding whether the results adequately reflect the amount of lead in East Chicago’s water system. Factors like the flow rate of the tap water during the sampling, the size of the mouth of the bottle being used to capture the water, and how the sample sites were chosen likely impact the accuracy of the presence of lead. It is crucial that IDEM provide additional details about its recent testing methods to ensure the public’s confidence in the results.

It would have been best if IDEM simply followed the EPA’s pilot study testing protocol. EPA used a method called “sequential sampling,” which draws ten samples throughout an individual’s home pipes from the water main to the street to the tap. While it’s a more expensive test, experts generally agree that sequential sampling is a more accurate testing method for characterizing the extent of lead in the water and for identifying the source of lead within the distribution system. (In fact, officials are considering sequential testing as a potential revision to the current federal requirements.)

Lacking equivalent testing to that conducted by EPA last fall, the agencies’ respective responses to IDEM’s water testing results are at best inconclusive, because the agencies are essentially comparing proverbial apples to oranges. That is, no agency has conducted repeat testing using the same methodology and the same or equivalent sample sites over different periods of time since EPA identified the citywide corrosion control failure.

Without equivalent, robust testing over time, agencies are limited in their ability to conclude credibly that the water system has in fact improved in a meaningful way. And to win back public trust from a community that has faced such an inexcusable history of environmental injustice and egregious agency failures, such testing cannot be done solely by the state agency that approved the inadequate corrosion control treatment in the first place.

Second, setting aside these methodological questions, IDEM’s results show concerning levels of lead in the homes tested. IDEM stated that all test results except one sample were below the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb). However, pointing to the current—and widely acknowledged outdated—federal action level of 15 ppb is misleading.

The 15 ppb threshold comes from the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which requires certain water systems to take additional actions if lead concentrations exceed 15 ppb in more than 10% of the customer taps sampled. But the 15 ppb is not a health-based standard, and no amount of lead is safe to consume. The inadequacies of the Lead and Copper Rule, including the 15 ppb threshold, are widely acknowledged, including by EPA itself. Regardless, 15 of the 27 samples in IDEM’s testing revealed significant levels of lead, even after running the water for several minutes. Therefore, in a community already facing cumulative exposures to lead from the air, soil and water, IDEM should interpret its testing data with caution and take proactive steps to protest residents.

Third, the drinking water situation in East Chicago is even more precarious given recent reports of black sludge found in residents’ sinks and tubs. Residents both within and outside of the Superfund site have reported finding a black substance in their bathrooms and kitchens coming from their tap water. EPA could only state at this weekend’s meeting that it was aware of the situation and is in the process of testing the material to determine its cause and solutions. Whatever additional testing is needed to address this problem needs to be done immediately.

Where does this all leave East Chicago? An attorney representing the City of East Chicago broadly stated at this weekend’s public meeting that residents should be using filters and that free filters are available at the water filtration department. This is a step in the right direction, but it was unclear from the attorney’s statements whether the filters are available to residents citywide, as opposed to solely residents of the Superfund site. Such filters should be made available to East Chicagoans across the city (including those individuals who may be homebound or disabled) until additional adequate testing confirms that the water is in fact safe to drink, and residents should have resources made available to them to ensure that such filters are properly installed.

Meanwhile, NRDC and our community partners continue to wait for a response from EPA on the emergency petition that we filed in March 2017 over the city’s drinking water. EPA should take a proactive role in ensuring that East Chicago and the state are protecting residents from lead in the city’s drinking water, and provide an alternate source of clean, safe water for residents until testing results from robust sampling adequately demonstrate that the water is safe to drink. 

Until such time, officials at every level of government must coordinate their public messaging, acknowledge the real risks to health from lead in the city’s drinking water and offer practical advice on how residents may consume water safely, instead of giving themselves a pat on the back for C+ results from inadequate testing and vague statements that put the burden of safety on residents.

About the Authors

Anjali Waikar

Staff Attorney, Environmental Justice and New York programs

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