Millions of Americans could be drinking lead-contaminated water without even knowing it because the country's regulatory system exempts small-scale utility companies from the same safety regulations that govern their larger counterparts, according to an investigation.
Those small utility companies -- defined as serving only a few thousand customers -- are not required to treat water to prevent lead contamination, the USA Today investigation found. But even if high levels of lead are found in water supplies managed by those utilities, federal and state regulators have a spotty record of enforcing safety laws.
The result is that millions of families could be using lead-contaminated water to drink, cook, and bathe in, the newspaper found.
It cited the case of the Walton family in Ranger, Texas. Tap water in the Walton home had 28 times the federal limit of lead content. State and local officials knew about lead contamination problems for two years, USA Today said, yet the family remained unaware of just how badly contaminated their tap water supply was until a reporter called them in November.
That was despite the fact that blood tests from the summer showed elevated levels of lead in their 2-year-old son's body, and a letter local leaders sent to Ranger residents that reportedly understated the severity of the problem.
USA Today and more than 100 other newspapers in 43 states are owned by the same parent company, and the paper's investigative report said journalists from that network cooperated in a review of millions of water safety records from every state in the U.S. and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Among the key findings of the investigation are:
- Dozens of small utilities that discovered high lead levels did not subsequently treat the water they delivered to customers, leaving about 100,000 people using tap water with high concentrations of lead. Many of those companies took more than a year to develop plans for treating the water.
- Small utilities serving more than 2,000 American communities skipped required water tests more than once, and hundreds of utilities did not test their water for periods of five years or longer. A combined 4 million Americans receive their tap water from those recalcitrant utilities.
- Even utility companies that have a documented history of lead contamination aren't properly regulated. Some 850 utility companies had not properly tested for lead levels since at least 2010, despite the fact that federal and state regulators were supposed to monitor the water delivered by those utilities and their adherence to the law.
In some cases, state regulators gave up entirely on trying to get water utilities to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, the federal law that is supposed to set standards for water quality, according to Water Encyclopedia. The law was passed in 1974 and has been amended six times since then, including an amendment in 2015 that was supposed to provide more resources to the operators of small public water systems.
Despite that, the USA Today investigation found, regulatory efforts in some cases don't go beyond warning letters to utilities that fail tests or fail to test their water in the first place.
“At the end of the day, it creates two universes of people," said Yanna Lambrinidou, an affiliate faculty member at Virginia Tech who is an expert on water regulation. "One is the universe of people who are somewhat protected from lead. ... Then we have those people served by small water systems, who are treated by the regulations as second-class citizens.”
Those so-called second class citizens live primarily in rural communities across the country, the report found. One example the report cited was Coal Mountain, West Virginia, where it said a retired coal miner tries to keep the water clean by pouring bleach into it.
That situation might be extreme, experts told USA Today, but it isn't unusual.
“You might have to get more training to run a hot dog stand than a small water system,” said Paul Schwartz with the Campaign for Lead-Free Water.
The problem persists despite the fact that the federal government set aside more than $32 billion to assist small utility operators in meeting water safety goals. At the same time, much of the country's water delivery infrastructure needs maintenance or replacing, and the EPA has estimated the cost at $64.5 billion spread out over 20 years.
In the meantime, millions of Americans continue to depend on drinking water that could have a serious adverse impact on their health. Gladys McCauslin, a 75-year-old from Blanchard, Louisiana, told USA Today her tap water comes out brownish and "gritty," and she thinks it's because her utility, East Mooringsport Water, stores the water in tanks contaminated with sediment.
"It makes me feel like I'm in a third world country," McCauslin said.