- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2016

Concerns about drinking water have spread to communities across the country in the wake of the lead contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan, as government leaders wade in to assess water quality in their jurisdictions and reassure residents.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton will head a congressional delegation to Flint next month to gather information about the city’s tainted water supply. On Thursday she asked the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority about its efforts to avoid a similar crisis, citing the District’s own lead contamination dilemma more than 10 years ago.

“Although Flint’s issues may be more severe, there are parallels between D.C.’s water contamination problems in the early 2000s and Flint’s water crisis today,” said Ms. Norton, a Democrat and the District’s nonvoting congressional representative.

In addition, Democratic Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois on Thursday introduced legislation that would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to improve its testing and monitoring of water quality nationwide. Their bill is dubbed the Copper and Lead Evaluation, Assessment and Reporting (CLEAR) Act of 2016.

“The loss of safe drinking water supplies in Flint and in communities across the country has given rise to a crisis of public confidence that should never be allowed to exist in America,” Mr. Cardin said in a statement. “The CLEAR Act will work to restore the public trust in its drinking water by improving safety testing and ensuring our communities know immediately should their drinking water safety ever be compromised.”

Meanwhile, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy are scheduled to testify March 17 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in Washington. The state’s former emergency management director, Darnell Earley, and former Flint Mayor Dayne Walling are scheduled to testify March 15.

Reports about high levels of lead in Flint’s drinking water exploded in the media last year, sparking calls for the resignation of Mr. Snyder and other officials, several investigations and lawsuits. The Republican governor and President Obama both have declared a state of emergency in the former automaking city, and communities across the country have begun questioning their own water supplies.

A national poll released this week by the Value of Water Coalition found that 76 percent of respondents were very or somewhat concerned about being able to drink water directly from the tap. With regard to Flint, 95 percent said it is important or very important for officials to invest in water infrastructure to prevent a repeat of the Michigan crisis in their neighborhoods.

In Fayetteville, Louisiana, ABC TV affiliate WAAY 31 reported that the city’s public utilities CEO has been trying to reassure residents about the safety of their drinking water in the aftermath of Flint’s problems.

And in Florida’s Tampa Bay area, city leaders are saying they are trying to extract lessons from the mess.

“It’s an important lesson to learn from, that we can never get too comfortable and take our eyes off the ball,” said St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, according to the Creative Loafing Tampa website.

‘No safe level’

Lead poisoning can damage the kidneys, the nervous system and the digestive system, causing a variety of ailments from stomach pain and nausea to muscle weakness, lethargy and memory loss. It also can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems in children.

In the District lead in the water supply is at “historically low” levels, said John Lisle, a spokesman for the Water and Sewer Authority (WASA).

Currently, lead levels test around 4 parts per billion (ppb), which is well below the EPA’s limit of 15 ppb, Mr. Lisle said.

Back in 2004, lead levels in the District’s water spiked dramatically — in some areas to 1,250 ppb — after it was found that WASA had switched from using chlorine to chloramine as a treatment chemical. The problem was so bad that a congressional investigation was launched, and WASA eventually was forced to replace lead pipes serving nearly 18,000 homes in the District.

To put that into perspective, the highest levels in Flint were tested at 13,200 ppb.

WASA tests at least 100 homes in the District every six months, as required by the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, Mr. Lisle said.

In addition, the water utility monitors lead levels via a variety of programs, including lead pipe loops that simulate residential use of water being produced at the treatment plants.

D.C. Water purchases treated drinking water from the Washington Aqueduct and distributes it to more than 600,000 residents and businesses. The aqueduct treats that with orthophosphate, which protects against the corrosion of lead pipes.

DC Appleseed, a nonprofit tackling problems facing District residents, said Thursday it will explore how the city can build on the progress it has made with water quality and try to eliminate all lead in the system.

“From a public health perspective, there is no safe level,” the group said in a statement. “Even low levels are associated with adverse, permanent neurological effects in children, including harm to cognitive function and attention-related and antisocial behavioral problems. And unfortunately, our laws and practices regarding lead may not be in keeping with the seriousness of the problem.”

DC Appleseed, which issued an exhaustive report outlining lead contamination problems during the 2004 water crisis, plans to focus on ensuring that children are being screened for lead in their blood. Of the 16,000 Medicaid-eligible children age 2 and under in the District, only about 50 percent are getting the two required screens.

“Better data would help families and providers know whether they need to take action to protect children’s health,” the group said. “It would also help officials know who and where are experiencing higher lead levels so that targeted steps can be taken to protect public health.”

• Ryan M. McDermott can be reached at rmcdermott@washingtontimes.com.

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