Two U.S. senators yesterday called for the inspector general of the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate whether the agency was properly protecting the public, saying they were alarmed by reports that utilities often violate rules designed to reduce lead in drinking water.
Members of the Senate also renewed a push for strict new laws to reduce lead contamination in drinking water and to require that the public be alerted quickly to lead risks. The demands followed a Washington Post report yesterday that dozens of water utilities are manipulating lead test results, violating federal law in some cases and putting customers at risk.
"Clearly, it is time for the federal government to take the recent threats to our public water systems seriously and impose tougher standards and requirements to ensure the public health," wrote Sens. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), in a letter to EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt. The letter urged Leavitt to stop maintaining that federal rules were keeping the public safe from lead.
Jeffords and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) called for the investigation at the EPA. The Post found that Philadelphia, Boston and other cities have thrown out water tests that produced high lead readings or have avoided testing homes most likely to have lead problems. New York City has withheld from regulators hundreds of test results that would have raised lead levels above the safety standard, according to records.
The findings undercut assurances by EPA officials this year that a lead problem uncovered in the District of Columbia's water was an aberration.
EPA officials said yesterday that they are looking into whether utilities have violated testing rules and that they plan to provide clearer advice to states and utilities about how to enforce and comply with the law.
"The quality of drinking water in the United States is among the best in the world," the EPA statement read. "If there are any utilities that have violated federal law by providing false, incomplete or misleading data on drinking water quality, EPA or the state will pursue appropriate penalties under federal and state law."
Clinton and Jeffords wrote to EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley that they hoped her investigation would determine, among other things, whether EPA and state regulators ignored evidence of law-breaking by utilities and thus failed in their duty to safeguard the public.
"We believe that strong enforcement of EPA's drinking water regulations for lead is a critical public health responsibility of EPA and its state and local partner agencies," Clinton and Jeffords wrote.