In 1987, I attended my first hearing in Congress…….held by a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce committee. The topic of the hearing? Lead in drinking water and in particular lead in drinking water at schools, especially in water coolers.
In 1988, the Lead Contamination Control Act was enacted banning lead in solder and flux and in certain materials. A national training program was launched by USEPA. Also, work began in earnest on a drinking water regulation for lead which was eventually promulgated in 1991. Several stakeholders were unhappy with a few of the provisions of that 1991 final rule which were challenged and eventually resolved as the rule was revised.
Then residents of Washington DC were potentially exposed to high lead levels in tap water between 2001 and 2004. A class action suit was filed against the Washington DC Water and Sewer Authority for these high lead levels. Several individuals also filed separate lawsuits. There is a long history of the aftermath of the Washington DC situation.
Now here we are with news articles about an incident in Flint Michigan (e.g. here). This type of situation should not have occurred. Lead has been regulated for over 20 years.
Residents of Flint potentially affected by high lead concentrations in tap water are very frustrated and angry. Academics and certain public health advocacy groups are also focused now on the Flint situation.
A lawsuit against the governor and anyone else is one way to vent that frustration. But will this help solve the problem in Flint and elsewhere? It might result in some political pressure but usually that yields a short term political solution which only responds to the excitement of the moment. Nationwide attention being drawn to a drinking water problem during an election year has been the pattern throughout the history of the safe drinking water act itself.
But is there something else missing? I believe there is. If there was indeed a problem with lead in Flint tap water then it should not have happened and some measure of accountability is in order. (I have not seen any data but I assume there is a problem from what I have read.) Were there any public education efforts regarding what consumers can do to protect themselves against exposure to lead in tap water prior to this situation? Did the water utility follow the USEPA lead rule requirements concerning public notification?
Certainly a number of questions need to be answered to understand just what happened. Only then can a just and honest assessment be made and the appropriate follow up actions and penalties determined. Unfortunately, taking this case to court may invoke a confidentiality making it more difficult to find out what really happened and how to prevent it from happening elsewhere.