INSIDE WASHINGTON/Getting the lead out
The discovery of lead in the District of Columbia’s tap water has federal officials reviewing the nation’s water systems and a United States Senator drafting legislation to boost funding for the country’s aging water infrastructure.
D.C.’s lead-laden water has caused residents there and in adjacent municipalities to panic. Congressional hearings on the lead issue already have occurred on both sides of Capitol Hill, and city and county officials across the country are beginning to test their own water systems as well as look to the Environmental Protection Agency for guidance.
Ellen Silbergeld, a professor in the Environmental Health Sciences Department at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, recently told the House Government Reform Committee that lead contamination is “unlikely to be limited to the District of Columbia,” where many people have resorted to drinking bottled water. “It is a signal that similar problems may exist in many other water systems,” Silbergeld says.
Tom Curtis, deputy executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based American Water Works Association, says “there is no evidence that this is a nationwide problem” but noted, “it is completely worth looking into more carefully, and utilities, states and the EPA are doing that.”
The National League of Cities (NLC) and National Association of Counties (NACo), both based in Washington, D.C., are watching the drama unfold and paying close attention to how the federal government could help financially. D.C. is expected to pay at least $350 million if it has to replace the lead service lines that deliver water to homes.
Local officials say they are concerned about the federal government saddling them with an unfunded mandate if the EPA determines that their service lines are not safe to carry water. “The difficulty that local governments have with federal mandates is that very often they do not come with funding,” says Hawaii County, Hawaii, Councilman Curtis Tyler, who also is a member of NACo’s environment, energy and land use steering committee.
Arlington, Mass., Selectman and NLC President Charles Lyons says he is concerned that the problem of contaminated lead pipes is not exclusive to D.C. “Many of our cities are experiencing the need to invest in basic infrastructure to get the lead out of the water,” Lyons says. “We need a federal treasury to back up the federal government mandates.” Lead poisoning can cause a number of health issues in adults such as kidney disease and high blood pressure, and it can hinder mental and physical development in children.
Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., the senior minority member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, is writing legislation that he says will “overhaul the current regulatory regime for lead in drinking water.” In addition to boosting funding for water infrastructure, Jeffords says his bill would “modify the Safe Drinking Water Act to improve public communication … require immediate notification of all homes with elevated lead test results … require public water systems to provide in-home filters where lead is a problem … prohibit lead in plumbing fixtures … require immediate nationwide testing of public water systems [and] … eliminate lead service lines and lead pipes.”
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.