Getting the lead out

by Wade Rathke

September 29, 2020

New Orleans   We have to take progress where we can get it in these dark days at perhaps the tail end of the Trump administration. There are scores of last-minute aberrations from muscling an appointment to the Supreme Court to further eroding labor law protections that are hitting fourth gear and heading for the wall. In that sense, the proposed rule by the EPA on lead, though flawed, is perhaps a break in the clouds, though there are thunderheads all around it.

The EPA is proposing the first major updated rule testing for lead in water in roughly thirty years. Part of this is a reaction to the drumbeat of reports from Flint, Newark, and tens of other cities that have been faced with the public health crisis of undrinkable water.

According to reports the new rule would meant that,

Schools and child care centers, for example, would be required to notify those who use their facilities of elevated lead levels within 24 hours of testing rather than the current 30 days. The rule also would require water utilities to conduct inventories of their lead service pipes and publicly report their locations.

Early response makes a huge difference, so this would be a win. Getting a full inventory of lead service lines finally would also be huge step forward. A Community Voice, ACORN’s affiliate in New Orleans, was forced to sue the Sewer & Water Board in 2019 after they failed to provide the information on the location of the lines made through a freedom of information request.

On the cloudier horizon, EPA’s scientists and other experts wanted a mandate for local governments to replace the six to ten million lead service lines nationally, and that didn’t make it into the proposal. In the wake of Flint, Michigan has some of the toughest water quality and lead requirements in the country and the governor asked out loud what the point of the new rule is without a mandate to replace on an accelerated timetable. In fact, critics point out that utilities seem to be getting more time to replace under the Trump rule.

There’s no mystery. It’s all about the money with a price tag in the billions. The question is also who pays. Madison, Wisconsin did the job, but Milwaukee is trying to charge individual residents. This is going to be a fight in the trenches everywhere. Cities and utilities made the decision initially. They broke it, so they should fix it, but many want to push the cost to individual payers.

It matters and every little bit saves lives. As Tom Neltner pointed out on the Leadnet listserve,

“A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives estimated that between 34,000 and 99,000 cardiovascular disease (CVD)-related deaths were avoided in 2014 due to reduced adult blood lead levels from 1999 to 2014. The analysis reports that between 16% and 46% of the overall reduced CVD deaths during those 15 years was attributable to reduced lead in adult blood.”

If we want to save lives, we find the money to do the job right. Meanwhile, we note the step forward and keep pushing for them to lengthen the stride and pick up the pace.

Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International.

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