TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Federal rules for testing lead in drinking water and notifying residents when high levels are coming out of their faucets are in need of a complete overhaul, the state’s environmental agency director said.
Guidelines that include allowing 60 days to pass before alerting residents to excessive lead readings don’t match the public’s expectations when it comes to safe drinking water, said Craig Butler, head of Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Lead contamination in the tap water in Flint, Michigan, and now in a northeastern Ohio village has put a spotlight on concerns with federal standards.
“This will be a hallmark on how we look at lead and change our drinking water standards,” Butler said.
The U.S. House approved legislation last week that would direct the federal EPA to tell residents and health departments if the lead found in a public water system requires action, in the absence of notification by the state
It’s the first action by Congress — but probably not the last — in response to the water crisis in Flint.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, said he’s working on legislation speeding up notification and the response communities must take.
He said it was unacceptable that communities can wait as much as 18 months to develop a plan to clean their water supply after excessive lead levels are detected.
“Imagine getting a notice that your water isn’t safe, but being told you have to wait up to a year and a half before there is even a plan in place to fix it,” Brown said in a statement.
Butler, meanwhile, sent a letter to Ohio’s congressional delegation this past week outlining changes that he thinks will improve public safety.
There needs to be a re-evaluation of testing methods that now allow public water suppliers to say they are free of lead even if a few homes have samples above the federal limit, he said.
The U.S. EPA also should encourage more homeowners to take voluntary water samples in order to better measure drinking water and improve public confidence, Butler said.
Lead, he said, needs special attention because many experts say there is no safe amount in water. It is especially dangerous to young children and can cause learning disabilities and behavioral problems.
Ohio officials, Butler said, will be taking a look in the coming months at whether to speed up the notification process when lead is detected in the water.
Democrats in Ohio have criticized the state’s EPA handling of the lead contamination in Sebring, a village near Youngstown.
The state EPA has said village officials failed to notify all water users that tests during the late summer showed high levels of lead in at least six homes. Most residents first learned of the problem in January.
But Democrats, including Brown, said the state EPA should have stepped in much sooner when it first realized the village had not told residents.
Butler has said the agency waited too long and that it is reviewing how it can improve its own oversight.
Water samples are continuing to be tested in Sebring. About 5 percent of the samples tested over the last three weeks have been above the federal standards for lead.
The EPA said it has found that running the tap for a few minutes eliminates any detectable lead in the water.
The village soon will be treating the water to prevent leaching from old lead pipes, Butler said.