News Article

Lawmakers target lead contamination in drinking water
April 3, 2016
By: Laura Ungar,

A spate of legislation in Congress aims to increase testing for lead in drinking water in cities, schools and day cares across the country amid evidence that excessive amounts of the notorious toxin have shown up in tap tests of almost 2,000 water systems that supply drinking water to millions of people.

A bill introduced this week by Rep. Donald Payne Jr., D-N.J., would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to require schools that receive federal funding for safe water programs to test for lead more regularly. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., has filed a similar bill in the Senate.

Also this week, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., held a press conference discussing legislation he introduced in February with Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., that would update the Environmental Protection Agency’s lead and copper regulations to require lead testing of pipes and water in U.S. cities.

And Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., introduced legislation last month to fund lead testing at schools and day cares — a companion to a Senate bill by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to establish a new federal grant program for schools and day care centers that want to test for lead.

“What’s at stake here is huge,” Durbin told the USA TODAY NETWORK on Wednesday. “We have to keep pushing on this.”

Currently, about 10% of the nation’s schools and a tiny fraction of day cares — the 8,225 facilities that run their own water systems — are required to test tap water for lead, the USA TODAY NETWORK reported last month. The investigation identified almost 2,000 water systems spanning all 50 states where testing has shown excessive levels of lead contamination over the past four years. Among those were about 350 schools and day cares.

Payne said he was inspired to file his legislation after visiting Flint, Mich., with other legislators and talking to residents. Several days later, he learned that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection advised Newark Public Schools to use alternate drinking-water sources after voluntary tests found elevated levels of lead in 30 of 67 district schools.

“I think it’s important because the safety of our children is at stake. I’m the father of 17-year-old triplets, and God forbid the system they’re drinking from in school (has excessive lead),” he said.

The legislation proposed by Payne and Booker would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act so states could only get funding from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund if they have a program to test for lead in drinking water in schools annually or biannually. It also would require school leaders to notify parents, the EPA and the state within 48 hours if the level of lead exceeds the federal standard of 15 parts per billion.

The USA TODAY NETWORK investigation found multiple examples — from New York to Arizona — of delays in notifying parents that water in school drinking fountains and sinks tested high for lead.

Durbin’s and Cardin’s legislation goes beyond schools, directing the EPA to improve reporting about testing and monitoring of lead and copper levels in drinking water. It would make law recommendations of the National Drinking Water Advisory Council, including increasing outreach to consumers with lead service lines and more online reporting about contamination issues by water utilities.

“Flint, Mich., reminds us of what happens when spending cuts become more important than the health of our kids. We can’t stand by and watch millions of our kids have their health and future jeopardized,” Durbin said this week. “We need to ensure we have the right regulations and the right protections.”

Durbin said he would support increasing funding for the Safe Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund, which helps communities finance water infrastructure.

Speaking at Durbin’s news conference, Henry Henderson, Midwest director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said: “If you want to destroy a civilization, feed the people lead.”

Payne acknowledged that some people have asked him why lawmakers waited until now to take action, when EPA data and other research indicates lead-contamination of drinking water has been a problem for years. “We can’t act until we know,” he said. “It’s really an issue that can plague us for years.”