Why Is it So Easy for Officials to Cover Up Drinking Water Scandals?

Vague regulations let government officials hide drinking water contamination from the public.

March 08, 2016

Photo: Michael Hamann/Flickr

recent poll on water safety found that more than half of Americans distrust what’s coming out of their taps. In light of the current water crises in Flint, Michigan, and Hoosick Falls, New York, there is little wonder why. Officials in both places waited months before notifying the public that their drinking water was unsafe. The two scandals demonstrate that the regulations governing public drinking water advisories are inadequate, and that government officials have a worrisome tendency to exploit their vagueness. Here’s a closer look at how the system failed both communities.

Flint, Michigan

At first glance, Michigan’s regulations appear clear. Under the heading “General Public Notification Requirements,” the Michigan Administrative Code states, “Each community water supply . . . shall give notice for violations of the maximum contaminant level (MCL).” The code also addresses timing. If lead levels are so high that short-term exposure would be hazardous, notice must be given within 24 hours of the violation. If long-term exposure is the concern, notice must be given within 30 days.

These seemingly straightforward rules were bent beyond recognition in the Flint debacle. The MCL for lead is 15 parts per billion. On February 18, 2015, Flint resident Lee Anne Walters notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that her tap water contained 104 parts per billion. So the public notification requirement was triggered, right? Not in the view of government officials. The reading in Walters’s home could have been a mistake, or her home could have had a localized lead problem that didn’t justify alarming the entire city.

Fine. Eight days later, an EPA official said that the lead testing system in Flint was flawed and likely understated lead levels citywide. Four days after that, repeat testing in Walters’s home showed an even higher concentration of lead. By May, after a consultant assured Flint that it didn’t have a lead problem, two more homes returned elevated lead levels. Was the public advisory requirement triggered then? Not according to the authorities who continued to wait.

In September, Virginia Tech University water treatment expert Marc Edwards confirmed the lead violation to Flint officials, and went one better: He explained that the problem was the corrosiveness of the source water, proving the issue couldn’t be localized to just a few homes. The city rejected Edwards’s findings.

Later that month, a pediatrician reported unusually high blood lead levels in the city’s children. At this point, the city had evidence of high lead readings in several homes, an expert telling them that the source water was leaching lead out of service pipes, and a doctor confirming that the neurotoxin had accumulated in children. And yet, officials still waited an additional week before issuing the public advisory.

Officials argue that they complied with the regulations, because they weren’t convinced there was a problem until September. They issued a public notice on October 1, meeting the 30-day rule for long-term health risks.

Surely that’s not good enough. Months before the notice was issued, officials at various levels of government had reason to believe the testing regime was flawed, as well as reliable reports indicating extremely high lead levels in homes in several neighborhoods. Only the vagueness of the word violation in the state code provided officials cover for their negligence.

Hoosick Falls, New York

The contaminant involved in the Hoosick Falls crisis may be different, but the regulations and the government response have been equally disturbing. Residents of the village worried for years about the presence of a suspected carcinogen called perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, in their underground water wells. PFOA is a by-product of Teflon manufacture, a mainstay of the Hoosick Falls economy since the mid 20th century.

In August 2014, Hoosick resident Michael Hickey reported PFOA concentrations of 540 parts per trillion in his tap water, 35 percent above the federal advisory level for short-term exposure. The report should have triggered follow-up and public notification at the time. But according to Hickey, Mayor David Borge worried that a drinking water advisory could threaten an economic revitalization program.

As in Flint, a lack of clarity in the regulations allowed Borge to delay a public advisory for more than a year. The EPA’s advisory level for PFOA is nonbinding, which inexplicably permits state and local governments to ignore unsafe concentrations. New York State has no specific regulation concerning PFOA, so it falls within the state rules for “unspecified organic contaminants,” or UOCs. Officials aren’t required to issue drinking water advisories for UOCs until concentrations exceed 50,000 parts per trillion—a level 125 times higher than the EPA’s recommended maximum. So Hoosick Falls and New York State officials waited more than a year, until a public warning from the EPA forced them to acknowledge the problem.

* * *

The stakes are high in drinking water contamination crises. When governments don’t respond appropriately, children can be poisoned and people can die. Our laws should specifically dictate how and when officials must step in and alert the public. Instead, our health relies on a regulatory mess that lends itself to delay and opacity. If you don’t believe me, just ask the New York State Department of Health, one of the agencies responsible for administering drinking water regulations.

“It is not a simple matter to fully meet public need and regulatory requirements when issuing a boil water notice,” notes the department on its website.

Gee, thanks. More than 40 years after the Watergate scandal, our representatives still haven’t learned: It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up. While we’re clearing up our drinking water, let’s clarify our laws as well.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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