The devastating lead contamination of the tap water in Flint, Michigan, highlights potentially disastrous gaps in the provision of safe drinking water to all Americans—especially the most vulnerable.
The water crisis in Flint has serious racial and socioeconomic implications, illustrating the broader problem of environmental injustice. The complex, far-reaching shortcomings include poor and unaccountable decisions by public officials as well as deficiencies in the Safe Drinking Water Act and the rules issued under that law that are supposed to address lead contamination.
Yet Flint is not alone. In an extensive analysis of official EPA violation and enforcement records, NRDC mapped lead-related issues in drinking water systems across the United States. Our research illustrates the extraordinary geographic scope of America’s lead crisis. In 2015, 18 million people were served by water systems with lead violations. These violations were recorded because the systems were not doing everything that they are required to do to protect the public from lead issues, which could include failure to treat to reduce lead levels in the water (health violations), failure to monitor the water for lead as required (monitoring violations), or failure to report lead results to the public or the government (reporting violations).
Even more surprising: Flint doesn’t even show up as having violations for lead in the EPA database. This glaring omission illustrates the serious problem of underreporting and gaming of the system by some water supplies to avoid finding lead problems, suggesting that our lead crisis could be even bigger. But, as outlined in our report, there are solutions:
- Fix Flint, with both immediate emergency relief, and long-term infrastructure and systemic improvements.
- Get the lead out. Invest in the rest of the country’s water infrastructure, removing lead service lines and fixing other water problems with a prioritization of underserved communities.
- Fix our drinking water laws and rules. Implement and enforce a bolstered Lead and Copper Rule, while letting citizens more easily sue for relief from contaminated water.
- Address environmental injustice, allowing local communities who bear a disproportionate burden of polluted water to participate in developing solutions to drinking water infrastructure challenges.
Explore: Lead Problems Across America
Use this interactive map to find out which communities water systems across the country violated the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, including health violations, as well as which communities exceeded the EPA’s lead action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).
How to read the map: “All Lead and Copper Violations” includes violations that occurred in 2015 (or were unresolved in 2015) for failure to treat to reduce lead levels, to test as required for lead, and to report test results to citizens or the government. “Lead and Copper Health Violations” includes only systems that violated the treatment technique provisions in the rule to reduce lead levels (for violations that occurred or were unresolved in 2015). “Lead Action Level Exceedances” includes systems that had more than 10 percent of their samples containing lead at more than EPA’s action level of 15 ppb where sampling was required to start or end between 2013 and 2015. See report for details on methodology.