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EPA wants more transparency from water systems across US to protect health, restore confidence

Flint's records of where its lead service lines are located were on hundreds of index cards until February 2016.
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

The U.S. EPA is stepping up enforcement of the federal rule designed to prevent people from being exposed to too much lead in their drinking water. Today, the agency is sending letters to 49 states responsible for implementing the federal rule. The EPA already has the primary responsibility for overseeing the Lead and Copper Rule in Wyoming and Washington D.C.

The water crisis in Flint is prompting the U.S. EPA to require more transparency of water systems across the country and the state regulators responsible for overseeing them.

The EPA wants states and public water systems to post information online. Things like, how water samples are taken, justification for invalidating samples, and where lead pipes are.

“That’s part of the point in making this request is really to help shine a light on that and focus attention on how important and foundational that is,” said Joel Beauvais, deputy assistant administrator for the Office of Water at EPA.

Flint did not keep accurate records of where lead service lines are, an inventory that was first required decades ago under federal law. It completed the inventory this month, but more than 11,000 records are missing.

The state apparently didn’t force the city to comply with the regulation either, only asking about the records after media reports last November. Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality has not returned requests for comment on this story.

“Obviously it’s an incredibly important area of focus because if you don’t know where the lead service lines are you can’t be targeting those areas to take samples and ensure that you’re providing appropriate protection under the rule,” Beauvais said.

“We hope that bringing a little greater transparency to this will help folks to know, where they are able to demonstrate where they are, and for those who don’t have adequate information, that it provides some impetus and incentive for those systems to try to improve the quality of information that they have,” he said.

Water experts have been demanding this kind of information be publicly available for years.

"I would be shocked if half of the cities that have lead pipe have accurate records of where those lead pipes are. "

Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards calls it a “huge step” towards improving water safety and transparency.

“What I’m seeing here is some signs of hope that the existing law will now be taken seriously,” Edwards said. “The reason we’ve been screaming so loudly in the last 10 years is because the law has not been followed. That’s the tragedy. The DC lead crisis, the Flint lead in water crisis, these never should’ve happened if the existing law had been followed.”

Edwards believes it’ll be tough for some water systems to put the inventory of lead service lines online.

“What people are going to realize is just the sorry, sorry state of those records. I would be shocked if half of the cities that have lead pipe have accurate records of where those lead pipes are. And I know they have guesstimates, but I think they’re very erroneous and I think we have to start sorting that out and I think this is an amazing first step. I applaud the EPA for finally requesting this transparency so that people can start getting on top of this,” Edwards said.

The EPA is in the middle of revising the Lead and Copper rule. But those changes won’t be complete until next year at the earliest. The EPA says the increased transparency and offers of technical guidance should help protect public health until those new rules are finalized.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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