Federal prosecutors, environmental officials and state regulators are investigating whether several water utilities across the country have broken criminal or environmental laws by misrepresenting the lead levels in their drinking water.
The U.S. attorney in New York has begun investigating whether the city's water agency committed a federal crime or violated a court order by concealing test results that signaled unsafe lead levels in the drinking water of 9 million New Yorkers, according to government officials.
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In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing the validity of lead testing reports across the country. EPA and state regulators are investigating whether to order some utilities to take quick steps to protect public health, including those in New York City, Detroit, Portland, Ore., and some northern New Jersey communities.
The wave of scrutiny comes in reaction to a report published in The Washington Post last week finding that several dozen water systems manipulated the test results for lead, violating federal rules and giving the public a false sense of security about the quality of the drinking water.
In the meantime, dozens of water quality experts, health officials and environmentalists ended a two-day meeting in Washington yesterday by concluding that the EPA must clarify and change some of its regulations for monitoring the nation's drinking water.
The New York City Department of Environmental Protection confirmed yesterday that it had received a subpoena last week from the U.S. attorney in the city seeking test results and related information. The Post reported that the agency failed to report more than 300 lead test results from 2000 to the present. Utilities are required to report all test results to regulators.
If those tests had been counted, as required, the city's water would have received a failing grade for safety in at least two of the past three years, in 2001 and 2002. At the time, the city agency assured the public that the water was safe to drink. The higher lead levels would have forced the nation's largest water provider to alert its customers to the health risks and spend millions of dollars to reduce the contamination.
It is a felony to conceal information or give false statements to a federal agency or official. Several dozen sewage treatment plant operators have been sentenced to prison time for giving false reports about the quality of wastewater that their plants dumped into rivers and streams. But prosecution of drinking water officials has been rare.
EPA officials in the New York region said they required the city agency to turn over all unreported data last week and are reviewing the test results to determine whether the agency violated the Safe Drinking Water Act.
"The rule does say you must use all the samples you analyze," said Mary Mears, spokeswoman for the EPA regional office in New York. "We are now reviewing the data. A lot of people around the country are probably looking into the reliability of their data now."
Michigan regulators say they are questioning Detroit water quality officials about whether their sampling plan meets the law's requirements. All homes tested are supposed to be at high risk for lead, but records indicate that one-fifth of the homes Detroit tested are not.
Detroit water officials said the homes, which were not built in the required time frame of 1982 to 1988, were renovated between those years, making them eligible as high-risk homes. A review of city records showed, however, that none of the homeowners obtained the required permits for the work the utility said was done.
Jim Cleveland, Michigan's drinking water administrator, said his office has also questioned Lansing officials about their invalidation of some test results but believes the community's newly aggressive effort to replace service lines will do much more to protect the public from lead levels. EPA regional officials in the Chicago office said they will work with Michigan officials looking into whether the regulations were properly followed in Detroit and Lansing.
Marie Jennings, a spokeswoman for EPA's Northwest regional office, said the agency and state regulators plan to look at what steps should be taken in Portland, which also may not be testing the homes most at risk.
"Does Portland need to adjust its water treatment and build a new plant?" Jennings said. "The answer to that is yes." Jennings said many utilities' reported lead results have been brought into question. "The question we face is, is that data misleading?"
Yesterday's meeting of water experts and environmentalists, organized by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, was held to review recent events in Washington: what led to thousands of homes registering excessive levels of lead and how the public concern was handled after the problem was disclosed in January.
WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson and Tee L. Guidotti, a health expert from George Washington University who is consulting with WASA, said those attending the meeting generally agreed that federal regulations on lead in water are not clear.
"The purpose of the lead and copper rule needs to first be clarified," Johnson said. Those at the meeting said the growing number of water quality rules, which also monitor for bacteria or other contaminants, at times conflict with one another, according to Johnson and Guidotti.
For example, in 2000, the Washington Aqueduct added the chemical chloramine to the drinking water to reduce carcinogenic byproducts in order to meet federal regulations. But most experts believe chloramine has caused lead to leach into the water over the past few years.
More recently, in June, the aqueduct began adding orthophosphate to the water to stem the lead leaching. But officials have said the new chemical has caused high levels of bacteria, though apparently of a strain that is not a health risk.
EPA Assistant Administrator Benjamin H. Grumbles has said he has ordered the agency to review its lead and copper rule. But he also has said that the excessive levels of lead found in the District were an anomaly and that federal laws are working.
Jeanne Bailey, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax County water utility, said most utilities are seeking better guidance from the EPA on how to regulate their water.
"The rules come out one by one," she said. "You have to look at, 'How do we put all these pieces of the puzzle together?' We have to figure out how that works."