East Chicago Needs More than "Basics" from Scott Pruitt's EPA

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East Chicago Needs More than "Basics" from Scott Pruitt's EPA

(Photo: espensorvik on Flickr)

With his upcoming visit to East Chicago, Indiana, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has a critical opportunity to make good on his confirmation statement—that EPA should have “acted faster” in Flint—by stepping in to ensure that residents throughout East Chicago have reliable access to drinking water that is not contaminated by lead.

Petition for Immediate Federal Response to Lead in Drinking Water

NRDC and a large coalition of local citizens, environmental clinics, state and national groups called for such action in an emergency petition submitted to EPA in early March. The petition highlights an EPA pilot study at East Chicago’s Superfund site that EPA has concluded indicates a system-wide problem with elevated lead in East Chicago’s drinking water. The petition invokes EPA’s authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act, asking the agency to immediately provide, among other things:

  • oversight of East Chicago’s ongoing attempts to improve its corrosion control treatment;
  • expanded blood lead level testing of children under age 7;
  • bottled water and home water filtration systems to residents throughout the city, with a preference for residents of the Superfund site; and
  • testing of the city’s drinking water to determine the extent of the contamination.

These measures are necessary in light of the City’s and State’s past poor history with treating the city’s drinking water for lead, and their limited and slow responses to EPA’s pilot study findings. And ultimately, city residents—including but not limited to Superfund site residents—need full replacement of their lead service lines at no or greatly reduced cost to them.

The people of East Chicago need far more from Pruitt than reliance on his “Back-to-Basics” stale rhetoric of state responsibility and competency, while failing to commit the needed federal help. Anything less than a full commitment by EPA to ensure a safe drinking water supply for the city demeans the real experience of East Chicagoans and every community like East Chicago.

Poor History of Corrosion Control Treatment

That the City and the State do not have the ability to handle the crisis is evident from their (in)actions to date. It was only after EPA flagged major inadequacies in the lead corrosion control treatment used by East Chicago that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) asked the City to change its water treatment in early fall 2016. Apparently, neither were aware of an issue.

In 2009, IDEM approved East Chicago’s use of “hexametaphosphate,” a treatment for iron in drinking water pipes. But at that time, there were articles and scientific studies dating to 1991 and even the 1940s showing concerns that this and other polyphosphate substances are ineffective in addressing—and in fact can worsen—dislodging of lead into drinking water.

Moreover, a 2002 study by expert Marc Edwards clearly highlighted problems with hexametaphosphate and lead. Edwards is a professor at Virginia Tech whose team was involved in performing tests that confirmed elevated lead levels in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water. His article on polyphosphates and lead, funded by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), states in the first sentence that “Hexametaphosphate tends to increase the release of both soluble and particulate forms of lead in drinking water.” A subsequent 2005 guide from the AWWA on lead and copper rule corrosion control treatment cites the 2002 Edwards article, putting forth that “[p]olyphosphates and sodium hexametaphosphate are sequestering agents and may be effective for the control of iron and manganese, but are not recommended for the control of lead and copper.”

When confronted with IDEM’s approval of the city’s use of hexametaphosphate, an IDEM spokesperson “could not comment” on whether the agency was aware of the 2002 Edwards study when it approved the City’s permit 7 years later. Nor was the current head of East Chicago’s water system familiar with the study when the utility finally started using hexametaphosphate at its water treatment plants in 2015. This city manager recently noted that “[i]t would have been helpful if they (EPA) had been more hands-on in helping to optimize this feed that they basically directed the city to switch to.” And the question remains of what, if anything, the city was doing to control lead corrosion before it began using hexametaphosphate. Clearly EPA oversight of East Chicago’s corrosion control treatment is needed moving forward.

Need for a Citywide Remedy

EPA action also is necessary given the state and local agencies’ focus on aiding solely one portion of the city. While Superfund residents should receive priority in the water contamination response, residents throughout the city need relief from the systemic lead problem with their drinking water—and they need it now.

Rather than affirmatively seeking to understand and remedy the city-wide problem, IDEM appears to be trying to minimize the significance of the EPA pilot study for the rest of city. In January, IDEM made claims in an email to EPA that the study identified only “an isolated location in the distribution that had a low amount of [lead corrosion control treatment].” This despite evidence that flow conditions at the sample sites were sufficient to distribute corrosion control treatment, with low flow issues potentially impacting only a small percentage of samples.

The result?

Residents of the Superfund site are rightfully receiving state-sponsored water filters—installation of which has *finally* begun four months after the EPA study results were made public, and long after volunteer efforts were underway – and are slated for publicly-funded replacement of their lead service lines. (Of note, residents have expressed concerns with potential bacteria issues with point-of-use filters, stemming out of research in Flint.) However, government agencies have committed little to no assistance to ensure that residents of the rest of the city currently have a clean source of drinking water.

The full effects of increased corrosion control treatment can take a year or more (one source says up to five years) to manifest. And there’s no guarantee that the City’s current treatment regime will work, given the old and likely deteriorated nature of East Chicago’s drinking water system, and the past use of polyphosphates. (As Edwards has noted, using a new chemical like the current orthophosphate-polyphosphate blend after use of hexametaphosphate may not be enough to protect East Chicagoans, particularly children, from exposure to high levels of lead in their water.) It’s also not clear that the relatively low amount of orthophosphate being used by East Chicago will do the trick in general.

In the meantime, IDEM has agreed only to some additional limited sampling of East Chicago locations outside of the Superfund site to demonstrate compliance with the federal Lead and Copper Rule—regulations that IDEM acknowledged in its January email to EPA do not adequately reflect the risk from lead pipes to those drinking the water.

Pruitt’s Visit—and Opportunity

This is unacceptable. The residents of East Chicago have suffered enough, and deserve a source of water that does not poison them with high levels of lead. If the City and State cannot or will not stake the steps necessary to ensure a safe drinking water supply, then EPA can and should step in so that all residents receive bottled water and effective filters now, and properly treated water and new service lines later down the road.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt will be visiting East Chicago this month at the invitation of Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb and members of the state’s Congressional delegation, to see firsthand the West Calumet residential community grappling with exceptionally high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil at the USS Lead Superfund site. The people of East Chicago and the drinking water petition give him a chance to make good on his confirmation statements, and for EPA under his watch to provide much-needed guidance, financial assistance and oversight in addressing the city’s drinking water contamination.

Meleah Geertsma

Meleah Geertsma is a senior attorney for the NRDC in their midwest program.

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