Is Flint the Tip of the Iceberg?

Is Flint the Tip of the Iceberg?

By Cody Kermanian, Staff Contributor

The Flint water crisis has aroused public concern over the quality of our nation’s water infrastructure, leaving many to wonder when and where the next tragedy will occur. After temporarily relying on the Flint River while seeking a lower-cost water provider, locals immediately found themselves in murky waters.[1] Even though the state Department of Environmental Quality knew about the river’s highly corrosive properties, the agency failed to treat the water, in violation of federal law.[2] The untreated water caused service lines to leach lead into public waterlines,[3] exposing thousands to toxic levels of polluted water. Despite obvious warning signs, Flint Mayor Dayne Walling attempted the “come on in, the water’s fine” approach, even drinking Flint water on local TV to encourage citizens to follow suit.[4] Ultimately, Flint residents did just that, filing a class action lawsuit against the State of Michigan and others last November.[5]

Let’s turn the clock back and examine the evolution of federal standards for the lead content of drinking water. Congress promulgated the Safe Drinking Water Act[6] in 1974 in response to the discovery of contamination in public drinking water and the lack of enforceable national standards. The Act prohibits the use of certain non-lead-free (by statutory standards) materials in potable water systems and the introduction of such materials into commerce.[7] The Act was amended in 2011 with the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act.[8] The amendment redefined the term “lead-free,” previously a weighted lead content of 8 percent or less, as a weighted average of not more than 0.25 percent.[9] In addition to congressional efforts to purify public drinking water, the EPA promulgated the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) in 1991,[10] requiring local water systems to undertake corrective action where lead concentrations exceed federal standards.

Although federal actors have persistently managed drinking water safety, the public also appears dissatisfied with the government’s protective measures. For instance, “drinking water test kit” currently produces over 1,300 Amazon.com search results.[11] Why is this the case? The simple answer is that the bulk of congressional legislation and agency rulemaking was prospective rather than corrective. The EPA estimates that approximately 10 million American homes and buildings receive water from service lines that contain at least some lead.[12] Excessive lead levels were found in nearly 2,000 water systems in all 50 states,[13] and over 5,000 water systems are currently in violation of the LCR.[14] To complicate matters, not only is the cost of replacing these lines exorbitant, but the replacement process is also known to release lead into the remainder of the pipe.[15]

Flint seems more like the opening of the floodgates than water under the bridge. As class struggles, the national debt, and an everlasting threat of impending economic crisis shape political discourse, it may be more than wishful thinking to expect the federal government to splash the cash necessary to wash away our water woes. Unfortunately, all indications point to rough waters ahead.

[1] Merrit Kennedy, Lead-Laced Water in Flint: A Step-By-Step Look At The Makings Of A Crisis, NPR (Apr. 20, 2016), http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/04/20/465545378/lead-laced-water-in-flint-a-step-by-step-look-at-the-makings-of-a-crisis.

[2] Sara Ganim, How tap water became toxic in Flint, Michigan, CNN (Jan. 13, 2016, 10:53 AM), http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/11/health/toxic-tap-water-flint-michigan/.

[3] Id.

[4] Dayne Walling drinking flint water, YouTube (Jan. 20, 2016), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFx0K6eLmyY.

[5] Flint Water Class Action, http://www.flintwaterclassaction.com/case-updates/class-action-lawsuit-filed-against-gov-snyder-state-of-michigan-city-of-flint-and-13-officials-alleging-health-property-damages-from-lead-tainted-city-water/ (last visited Oct. 30, 2016).

[6] Safe Drinking Water Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 300f-300j-26 (2016).

[7] Id.

[8] Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, Pub. L. No. 111-380, 124 Stat. 4131 (2011).  https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-111s3874enr/pdf/BILLS-111s3874enr.pdf

[9] Id.

[10] Lead and Copper Rule, 40 C.F.R. §§ 141.80-91 (1991).

[11] Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/ (search in search bar for “drinking water test kit“) (last visited Oct. 30, 2016).

[12] Arthur Delaney, Lots of Cities Have the Same Lead Pipes That Poisoned Flint, The Huffington Post (Feb. 22, 2016), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/lead-pipes-everywhere_us_56a8e916e4b0f71799288f54.

[13] Alison Young, Beyond Flint. Excessive lead levels found in almost 2,000 water systems across all 50 states, USA Today (last visited Oct. 30, 2016), http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2016/03/11/nearly-2000-water-systems-fail-lead-tests/81220466/.

[14] Sara Ganim, 5,300 U.S. water systems are in violation of lead rules, CNN (June 29, 2016), http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/28/us/epa-lead-in-u-s-water-systems/.

[15] Delaney, supra note 12.

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