4 million Americans could be drinking toxic water and would never know
-by Laura Ungay and Mark Nichols
RANGER, Texas — The leaders of this former oil boomtown never gave 2-year-old Adam Walton a chance to avoid the poison.
It came in city water, delivered to his family’s tap through pipes nearly a century old. For almost a year, the little boy bathed in lead-tainted water and ate food cooked in it. As he grew into a toddler — when he should have been learning to talk — he drank tap water containing a toxin known to ravage a child’s developing brain.
Adam’s parents didn’t know about the danger until this fall.
Officials at City Hall knew long before then, according to local and state records. So did state and federal government regulators who are paid to make sure drinking water in Texas and across the nation is clean. Ranger and Texas officials were aware of a citywide lead problem for two years — one the city still hasn’t fixed and one the Waltons first learned about in a September letter to residents. The city and state even knew, from recent tests, that water in the Walton family’s cramped, one-bedroom rental house near the railroad tracks was carrying sky-high levels of lead.
Destiny and John Walton got their first inkling of a problem when blood tests in June detected high levels of lead in their son’s growing body. They first learned that their tap water contained lead — about 28 times the federal limit — when a USA TODAY Network reporter told them in early November.
Millions of Americans face similar risks because the nation’s drinking-water enforcement system doesn’t make small utilities play by the same safety rules as everyone else, a USA TODAY Network investigation has found.
Tiny utilities – those serving only a few thousand people or less – don’t have to treat water to prevent lead contamination until after lead is found. Even when they skip safety tests or fail to treat water after they find lead, federal and state regulators often do not force them to comply with the law.
USA TODAY Network journalists spent 2016 reviewing millions of records from the Environmental Protection Agency and all 50 states, visiting small communities across the country and interviewing more than 120 people stuck using untested or lead-tainted tap water.
The investigation found:
- About 100,000 people get their drinking water from utilities that discovered high lead but failed to treat the water to remove it. Dozens of utilities took more than a year to formulate a treatment plan and even longer to begin treatment.
- Some 4 million Americans get water from small operators who skipped required tests or did not conduct the tests properly, violating a cornerstone of federal safe drinking water laws. The testing is required because, without it, utilities, regulators and people drinking the water can’t know if it’s safe. In more than 2,000 communities, lead tests were skipped more than once. Hundreds repeatedly failed to properly test for five or more years.
- About 850 small water utilities with a documented history of lead contamination — places where state and federal regulators are supposed to pay extra attention — have failed to properly test for lead at least once since 2010.
This two-tiered system exists in both law and practice. State and federal water-safety officials told USA TODAY Network reporters that regulators are more lenient with small water systems because they lack resources, deeming some lost causes when they don’t have the money, expertise or motivation to fix problems. The nation’s Safe Drinking Water Act allows less-trained, often amateur, people to operate tiny water systems even though the risks for people drinking the water are the same.
Officials in West Virginia, for example, labeled more than a dozen systems “orphans” because they didn’t have owners or operators. Enforcement efforts for those utilities amounted to little more than a continuous stream of warning letters as utilities failed to test year after year. All the while, residents continued drinking untested — and potentially contaminated — water.
“At the end of the day, it creates two universes of people,” said water expert Yanna Lambrinidou, an affiliate faculty member at Virginia Tech. “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.”
All of this endangers millions of people across the country, mostly in remote and rural communities. Utilities like East Mooringsport Water, serving part of a bayou town of about 800 people, where drinking water went untested for more than five years. Or Coal Mountain, W.Va., a remote 118-person outpost where a retired coal miner pours bleach into untested water at the system’s wellhead in hope of keeping it clean. Or Orange Center School outside Fresno, Calif., where for more than a decade regulators let about 320 grade-school kids drink water that had tested high for lead.
Individually, the communities served by small utilities seem tiny. But together, the number of people getting lead-contaminated drinking water, or water not properly tested for lead, since 2010 is about 5 million.
Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards, one of the nation’s top experts on lead in drinking water who helped identify the crisis in Flint, Mich., laments that people in America’s forgotten places — rural outposts, post-industrial communities and poor towns — are most at risk from the dangers of lead exposure, such as irreversible brain damage, lowered IQ, behavioral problems and language delays.
Edwards said the effects of lead poisoning could make it even more difficult for families in these communities to climb out of poverty. “I’m worried about their kids,” he said. “The risk of permanent harm here is horrifying. These are America’s children.”
The Waltons fear lead has already harmed their son. At an age when other kids use dozens of words, Adam says just three: “mama,” “dada” and “no.” Destiny and John wish they would have known about the lead earlier so they could have protected him.
“What’s going to happen if my son’s lead levels keep rising? What if the kid next door gets way sicker than my son? What’s Ranger going to do then?” Destiny asked. “They’ve known about it for years now. … Are they going to fix it?”