Time Is Ripe for EPA to Lead on Drinking Water Issues

Paul Domenick/Flickr

When President Trump announced that the person slated to head the EPA was, in fact, the same person whose mission appeared to be to gut the EPA, we all cringed. And yet, during his nomination hearing, then-Attorney General Pruitt confirmed that in the context of the Flint water crisis, EPA did not do a good enough job. Pruitt stated unequivocally: “If confirmed and faced with a similar situation, I would inform the state that EPA will take action if they fail to do so, and use EPA’s emergency authority if the state fails to act.”

Well, that time has come.

Have you heard about East Chicago? East Chicago is yet another city with a lead-in-drinking water problem. This industrial city is located twenty-five miles southeast of Chicago over the Indiana border. Unfortunately, drinking water contamination is only one aspect of the challenges the city faces. The community—of which 90 percent are people of color and over a third are living below the federal poverty line—has been plagued by a legacy of lead and arsenic contamination in connection with the numerous industrial facilities that have been operating in and around the city for decades. In fact, the City made national headlines last year when officials found soil with extremely high levels of lead and arsenic in and around the USS Lead Superfund site (an area of the City designated as a hazardous waste site and slated for cleanup by EPA). Peoples’ lives have been disrupted. For example, the 1,000 residents of the West Calumet Housing Complex have faced forced relocation due to the lead and arsenic in their soil; single family homes contend with ongoing excavation efforts to remediate their soil; and, on the eve of the academic calendar last fall, neighboring Carrie Gosch Elementary School closed down due to safety concerns arising out of the lead levels at the Housing Complex.

Against this background of soil and air contamination, EPA conducted a pilot study last year to determine if remediation of the soil would impact lead levels in the drinking water. Based on its own study, the agency found that a whopping 40 percent of homes tested had elevated levels of lead in their drinking water. Remarkably, the EPA concluded that the lead contamination is “system-wide,” caused not by legacy soil contamination, but instead by lead service lines and insufficient corrosion control treatment in the water system. The situation is particularly dire in East Chicago for the children who are most susceptible to lead exposure as they face increased, cumulative lead impacts from the soil, air and drinking water.

EPA identified a system-wide problem and is recommending East Chicagoans consume only filtered tap water. But it hasn’t offered any other immediate assistance to protect residents from consuming contaminated water. That’s why NRDC and a coalition of local, regional and national advocacy organizations served a petition on EPA last week. The petition urges the agency to step in and take emergency action to secure safe drinking water for East Chicago residents, including by providing filters and bottled water at no cost to them. EPA has the authority to act to “abate an imminent and substantial endangerment to health,” as is the case in East Chicago, and should do so quickly.

Of course, EPA received our petition the same week information about massive staff and budget cuts was announced. This could impact the EPA’s ability to enforce public protections like those needed in East Chicago. In fact, one of the programs rumored to be on the chopping block is the Agency’s environmental justice program intended to protect communities of color like East Chicago that already bare a disproportionate pollution burden.

EPA Administrator Pruitt has an opportunity to show real leadership by standing behind the statements he made at his confirmation hearing and take action where the City and State have failed to do so. Pruitt should act now. 

About the Authors

Anjali Waikar

Staff Attorney, Environmental Justice and New York programs

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