December 12, 2016
4 million Americans could be drinking toxic water and would never know
Laura Ungar 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.
“At the end of the day, it creates two universes of people. 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.”
YANNA LAMBRINIDOU, AFFILIATE FACULTY MEMBER AND DRINKING WATER RESEARCHER AT VIRGINIA TECH
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?”
WHERE EVERYTHING BREAKS DOWN AT ONCE
Perhaps the best illustration of what can happen when everything breaks down at once is Ranger, where high lead and government inaction have converged in a pervasive contamination problem experts compared to a “tiny Flint.”
Ranger’s water system dates to the city’s heyday nearly 100 years ago, when the discovery of oil attracted a population that historians say reached 30,000. Ranger is now a barren place with 2,500 people, abandoned buildings and a lonely Main Street where a mural of a steer-wrangling cowboy near an oil well fades away like the city.
With ever-shrinking tax rolls and median household income at about half the national average, there’s little money to shore up a decaying infrastructure. Leaks spring daily.
Many residents rely on bottled water. They’ve heard through the grapevine that the city’s water might be unhealthy. They can see for themselves it’s not always clean. While lead is colorless and odorless, algae in the water is not.
“Some days, it’s more brown than green. It smells sort of like a sewer,” said Vietnam veteran Bill Brister, who spends about $70 a month on bottled water. “We don’t even give the dogs tap water.”
Three years ago, the city found excessive levels of copper. Nine months after that, three of 20 sites tested over the limit of 15 parts per billion of lead. Under federal law, both required immediate action, but documents show the city waited until this fall to start planning to control corrosion. Testing this September found five sites above the limit for lead, the Walton home topping the list at 418 parts per billion. The federal limit is 15.
Similar scenarios play out in hundreds of mostly struggling communities — cities built on boom-bust industries like oil and coal, isolated rural places and mobile home parks housing the poorest people in town.
Ranger is one of about 130 water systems since 2010 that failed to take timely action, and one of dozens that took a year or more to start the treatment process.
City Manager Chad Roberts said Texas environmental officials pushed hard this fall after USA TODAY Network reporters visited Ranger and began asking questions. State officials insist the push came after a weekly review found that Ranger met EPA criteria for the state to take formal enforcement action.
Ranger took its first step toward reducing lead in November — nearly three years late — by giving the state a corrosion-control study that called for adjusting the pH of the water. State officials deemed the plan insufficient, however, and are working with the city to improve it.
As the city formulates its plan, residents continue to drink water that might be dangerous.
A boil notice was in effect in early November when Kay Hodges, 23, said she drank straight from the tap because she was nine months’ pregnant, dehydrated and out of bottled water. “I got really sick. I was throwing up all night,” she said.
Hodges lives with her fiancé and young children in a low-income housing complex called Austin Acres. A tap at the complex has repeatedly tested high for lead, most recently at more than twice the federal limit. Hodges figures she should now get checked for the toxin.
Others fear lead exposure, too. Anita Baker, a 79-year-old colon cancer survivor in Austin Acres, has been using city water for cooking and making coffee but plans to stop after learning from a reporter that boiling the water concentrates the lead.
The Waltons — who squeeze into their one-bedroom home by putting the master bed in the living room — also drank lots of city water, in iced tea, Kool-Aid, diluted juice and by itself. Adam’s highest blood lead reading was more than three times the federal cutoff to be considered elevated, and his 1-year-old brother, Andrew, also had slightly elevated lead levels.
Texas environmental officials say they have taken steps to speed Ranger’s response. They sent experts to Ranger, referred the city to the EPA for formal enforcement in March, issued new citations in October and fined the city about $3,000.
The city raised water rates to pay for improvements and now promises to replace more of the old water lines, increase testing and seek grants for more upgrades.
“We are good with the state right now,” Mayor Joe Pilgrim said, “and that’s all that matters.”
Still, residents may have to wait years for clean water. After the state approves a reworked corrosion-control study, Ranger has two years before it must start treating its water. By then, Adam Walton will be almost ready for kindergarten.
PLAYING BY A DIFFERENT SET OF RULES
It’s easy to see why a place like Ranger winds up with toxic water when you compare it to a typical large water system like the one in Louisville, Ky.
Louisville Water has about 435 full-time staffers, including a director of water quality and production with a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. Ranger has seven public works employees.
Louisville Water has an operating and maintenance budget of $127 million. Ranger’s entire city budget is $3.2 million.
The top salary for water quality employees at Louisville Water is $141,276. Most of Ranger’s public works department employees earn from $8.50 to $12 an hour.
Some small utilities are even worse off.
“You might have to get more training to run a hot dog stand than a small water system.”
PAUL SCHWARTZ OF THE CAMPAIGN FOR LEAD FREE WATER
In Colorado, near Black Canyon, the man in charge of providing safe water to 335 people is a farmer who spends most of his time tending to livestock, wheat, oats and barley.
In West Texas, at Klondike Independent School District, water safety is handled by Superintendent Steve McLaren, whose first job is running a one-building school system serving 260 students. He wears many hats in the district amid cotton fields; he’s been known to drive a school bus from time to time.
McLaren acknowledged he skipped required testing for lead and copper in fall 2014 because “some things just slip by.” When Klondike did test last year, it found excessive lead in both rounds of testing.
Generally, the bar for running tiny water systems is low. Certification for hands-on operators varies by state and typically involves passing an exam and getting ongoing continuing education credits. Some states require licensing but with varying qualifications. Minimum requirements in Texas, for instance, are a high school diploma or GED and a training course in basic water operations. No experience necessary.
“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, a group of people and organizations working to get lead out of drinking water.
Many states, and the EPA, offer extra guidance and instruction. But not everyone avails themselves of this help, leaving many small operators with “a complete lack of training,” Lambrinidou said. “Sometimes, they’re cheating and they don’t know they’re cheating.”
Some government funding is available for struggling utilities. EPA’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which includes a state contribution, has provided $32.5 billion through 2016 to water systems that applied for help. Another EPA program awards millions each year to non-profit organizations that provide training and technical assistance to small, public water systems. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also offers loans and grants.
Edwards and others say the need far outstrips the money, and loans aren’t helpful to utilities that can’t pay them back. An EPA assessment from 2013 estimates infrastructure needs for small water systems will total $64.5 billion over 20 years. The revolving fund’s 2016 allocation, for systems of all sizes, was less than $1 billion, and a Congressional Research Service report on the fund in November concluded that “a substantial gap remains between financing needs and available funds.”
Recognizing resource constraints, the federal government lets small water systems play by more lenient rules.
Scattered throughout EPA regulations on lead and copper are specific provisions for small water systems. While utilities serving 50,000 or more people must always control corrosion, for example, smaller systems don’t have to even plan for such treatment when lead is below the federal limit for two consecutive six-month periods. And they can discontinue treatment once lead drops below the limit.
Utilities serving 3,300 or fewer can, if they meet certain criteria, test for lead as little as once every nine years.
Experts say such regulations make it easy for lead problems to go undetected and uncorrected in the very places that are most vulnerable to contamination.
“You might think we have a lead in water law,” Edwards said. “What we have is a national joke.”
4 MILLION LIVING WITH AN UNKOWN
A cornerstone of those 25-year-old lead regulations is testing. But the USA TODAY Network found that 9,000 small water systems together serving almost 4 million people failed to test properly for lead in the past six years, meaning the toxin could be there without anyone knowing. More than a quarter of those systems had repeat lead-testing violations.
EPA acknowledges it gives higher priority to immediate public health issues like acute contamination than testing violations.
Money is a factor in skipping lead tests, which can cost around $50 per tap. Utilities must test from five to 20 locations, depending on how many customers they serve. A USA TODAY Network analysis found it would cost about $1.2 million to check the water served by every small utility that failed to test twice since 2010. Lead testing for every small water utility that missed even one test would cost around $5 million.
Ranger admits in a letter to residents to three years of skipped or incomplete tests. Roberts, who started as city manager in the spring, blamed lack of expertise and previous neglect, saying “the ball got dropped for sure.”
It also got dropped at Orange Center School in California, which skipped testing for nine years — even after finding excessive lead in 2003. In the rural neighborhood outside Fresno, officials in charge let the kids keep drinking the water for more than a decade.
State officials threatened to fine the school, but records show no more lead tests were done until 2012 and no action was taken. Three of those tests again found high lead. Two more years went by before California officials ordered the school to stop using the water and began shipping bottled water to students, while the school waits to be connected to the much-larger Fresno water system.
Customers of East Mooringsport Water in Louisiana, are also waiting to hook up to a larger water system after at least five years of skipped tests.
“Honestly, we just didn’t have the money to do (testing),” said Edward “Pat” Turnley, who distributes monthly water bills to the 90 East Mooringsport customers. “We’re barely hanging on here.”
The state cracked down several times, ordering the district to test three years ago and fining the community more than $43,500. But little changed. Finally, in late June, the state tested nine homes itself, and found lead contamination in two. More testing will need to be done to determine the extent of the problem.
East Mooringsport buys treated water from the nearby town of Blanchard, then stores it in old tanks. Resident Gladys McCauslin suspects sediment in the tanks is what makes her tap water brownish and gritty. Residents are warned to boil it before drinking or cooking.
“It makes me feel like I’m in a Third World country,” said McCauslin, 75.
McCauslin hopes things will change when Blanchard, which has a new, $17 million water treatment plant, acquires her community’s water system. As she waits for the merger, she keeps doing what she’s done for years — paying the bill for untested tap water while shelling out extra money for bottled water to drink and filtered, purified water for bathing.
Residents in remote Coal Mountain, W.Va., have gone as long as anyone can remember with untested, questionable water. No one knows what contaminants it might contain.
REGULATORS HAVE GIVEN UP ON SOME PLACES
Their wellhead is housed near a church, in a shed cluttered with empty bleach bottles. They’ve been left behind by Ravin Kenneda, a 65-year-old with a salt-and-pepper mustache and a baseball cap, who pours bleach into his community’s water once in a while to keep it clean.
“It’s just stuff I’ve learned down through the years,” he said from his front-porch swing as his granddaughter sipped bottled water.
Though he’s no water expert, he concedes, “Someone’s got to do it.”
State and federal governments have pretty much given up on enforcing safe-drinking-water rules here and in similarly tough cases, leaving residents to fend for themselves.
Coal Mountain’s tap water comes from a coal company well abandoned in the 1980s. Water is pumped up the mountainside to an old storage tank hidden amid tangled trees, then flows down to homes. It’s the subject of 19 water-testing violations since 1988, the most in the nation.
“We don’t know what’s in it,” said Mila Darnell, 62, who is raising two 17-year-old grandsons with her retired coal miner husband. “I’m very concerned about lead or whatever else could be in there.”
No doubt something is awry; the water stains the Darnells’ clothes, stops up their shower head and sometimes smells like fish. Although they won’t drink it, they do use it for cooking — boiling it first and hoping no one gets sick.
West Virginian officials say they can’t do much beyond sending out advisories and issuing notices about water-testing violations because Coal Mountain has no owner or operator. The state labels Coal Mountain and about 15 other utilities “orphan systems.”
“This happens, actually, across the country. We try to work with them, but the problem is finding someone who’s responsible,” said Walter Ivey, director of the West Virginia health department’s Office of Environmental Health Services.
One option is for states to test the water. But Jon Capacasa, director of EPA's Region 3 Water Protection Division, said that the law calls for utilities to monitor for lead and report results to states, and that the obligation lies with them.
When utilities can’t or won’t, however, they often face little if any real punishment.
Notices and orders were EPA’s weapons against Coal Mountain’s lead-testing violations for five years — after which nothing changed and West Virginia asked that no further federal action be taken.
Water-quality advocates say residents deserve better.
Government “owes it to these people to at least provide clean drinking water,” said Wyoming County Clerk Mike Goode, adding that the county is working on a proposal to help Coal Mountain. “It’s bad. These people live in America. They have a right to good water.”
But Mila Darnell laments that such rights don’t always extend to poor, rural Americans like her.
“We’re a forgotten people,” she said. “It hurts to feel … like you just don’t count.”
'No responsible party'
ACCOUNTABLE OFFICIALS MINIMIZING DANGER
Roberts, the city manager, downplayed the danger from Ranger’s water. Roberts said small children and pregnant women probably shouldn’t drink it (as the city said in a letter to residents). He said overall, “I don’t see a problem with drinking (it.) I drink it. ... I don’t think it’s a health alert serious enough for an emergency.”
Roberts blamed much of the lead problem on homeowners’ pipes, although he acknowledged the city’s distribution system contains lead pipes as well.
Pilgrim, Ranger’s mayor, agreed the water isn’t unsafe, saying his city “has never put any of their people in danger. … It’s not an ongoing medical disaster to anyone in town for any reason.”
They are far from the only officials to minimize water problems.
Kentucky’s Peter Goodmann, who directs the division of water there, used a similar rationale to defend many years of inaction when a tiny water system without an owner refused to test for contaminants. “There’s not much we could do because there’s no responsible party,” Goodmann said of Kettle Island Water, which was recently downgraded from a public water system because it’s gotten so small. “Nobody’s dying there, and there doesn’t seem to be any public health effects.”
The EPA would not allow senior officials including Peter Grevatt, director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, to be interviewed. The agency would respond only in writing to questions, saying it’s revising lead regulations, working with states to strengthen protections and oversight, and remains committed to “vigorous civil and criminal enforcement to protect public health.” On Nov. 30, the EPA released a drinking water “action plan” that includes proposed steps to help tiny water utilities comply with the drinking water laws, such as guidance to help them find money for needed improvements and updated certification guidelines for people operating them.
For now, lead continues to taint tap water in places like Ranger. Katelyn Peters, who lives next door to the Waltons, doesn’t see anything changing soon.
“This is where I was raised. This is where I was planning on raising my kids,” she said, watching three of her four kids chase each other in the front yard, wondering if the water could be slowly poisoning the town’s kids. “Now, I’m terrified. I would live anywhere else.”
Contributing: Lex Talamo of The Shreveport (La.) Times and Caitlin McGlade. Talamo reported from Mooringsport, La. McGlade reported from Ranger, Tex. Nichols reported from Indianapolis. Ungar reported from Ranger, Coal Mountain, W.Va., and Louisville.