Public urged to weigh in on water quality

Clean-water measures are moving forward at state and federal levels

"Well" by Mamboman1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Safe drinking water is receiving significant attention this year, from proposed rule changes by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to creating new incentives for companies to clean up and reduce pollution. But advocates pushing for safer drinking water are still looking for more.

“It’s about time EPA takes the crisis seriously by putting forth much needed updates to this rule,” Carly Michiels, Government Relations Director for Clean Wisconsin, said in a press release. Michiels told Wisconsin Examiner the rule change was 30 years in the making, and represents a big step forward. Nevertheless, she pointed to holes in the proposal.

The EPA is not doing enough to push for replacement of lead service lines, said Michiels. “They also do not lower the action level of 15 parts per billion, which is way too high. Instead, it creates a sort of a step before that 15ppb (parts per billion), which they’re calling a trigger level.” That trigger level would be 10ppb, which Michiels says is still much too high.

Action levels are thresholds for lead and copper levels in water before an action like replacing a line or even testing is considered. This threshold, Michiels explains, was based on technology standards from the early 1990s and not on public health. “There is no safe level of lead exposure,” said Michiels “Lead in drinking water is a 100% preventable problem.”

EPA’s proposed rule change emphasized the speedy identification of “the most at-risk communities.” It also proposed strengthening water treatment requirements, replacing lead service lines, increasing the reliability of samples, improving risk communication, and addressing contaminated water in schools and child care facilities. For the first time ever, a public lead service line inventory will be required. “Unlike now,” reads an EPA summary of the rule change, “systems will have to pay attention to individual locations with elevated levels of lead by identifying the cause and mitigating the problem.”

The rule change also sought to close the many loopholes which delay the replacement of lead service lines. “Importantly,” reads the EPA summary, “the proposal prohibits ‘test-outs’ to avoid replacing lead service lines — an allowed practice under the current rule that has significantly slowed national progress.” The new EPA rule aims to end the practice of only partially replacing a lead line, such as during emergency repairs. “Science has recently shown us that partial lead service line replacement may increase short-term lead exposure.”

Replacing lead service lines is a pressing matter for the city of Milwaukee. Numerous residents who attended the city budget meeting in early October blasted officials for not adequately tackling lead line replacements. One mother, Deanna Branch, spoke on behalf of her son Aiden, who’s been diagnosed with multiple disorders as well as high lead levels. Lead contamination at an early age has been linked to learning difficulties, poor physical health, behavioral issues and even increased gun violence.

Replacing lead laterals is a truly vast problem, with the DNR estimating that it would take $2 billion to replace Wisconsin’s 200,000 lead lines. Some 77,000 of those are in the city of Milwaukee.

Nasty bathtub with dead fish and pollution and a person's knees
“Lesser the pollution, better the life.” by Kristlin Visnapuu is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Legislators have also put forward Assembly Bill 113, introduced by Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), Rep. Straush Gruszynski (D-Green Bay), along with 48 other members. The legislation seeks to create a system where companies could buy and trade “pollution credits.” Under the oversight of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the system would “authorize a person (permit holder) who holds a water pollution discharge elimination system (WPDES) permit or a storm water discharge permit to discharge a pollutant above the levels authorized in the permit if the permit holder enters into any agreement with another party, under which the other party will reduce water pollution.” The bill dictates that, “the agreement must result in an improvement in water quality.”

Clean Wisconsin voiced support for the bipartisan bill. “Nutrient pollution, especially from phosphorus and nitrates, continues to choke our waterways and contaminate drinking water,” said Amber Meyer Smith, the organization’s Vice President of Government Relations. “This bill is another tool to use in the ongoing effort to help communities comply with water quality standards by creating innovative partnerships that protect our water from nutrient pollution. We commend the Senate for unanimously passing this bill.”

Michiels of Clean Wisconsin told Wisconsin Examiner, “they’re trying to put a value on reducing phosphorus.” Essentially, a clearinghouse system would be created in which, if a party reduces pollution by a certain amount, they get a corresponding credit. Parties holding credits could sell or trade them within this new system. “They’re trying to incentivize other places to clean up more phosphorus,” she explains. Michiels points out that there is no single solution to water pollution. Pollution credits are one of many approaches.

Any downside to a pollution credit system would likely depend on how exactly it’s implemented in the Badger State. “I think that’s what this bill is trying to get at,” said Michiels, “making sure that this clearinghouse and the ratio and everything are set up in a way that’s pretty transparent and everybody can participate. And everybody is sure that their credit has value.” Michiels said that as it stands, the only downside would be a lack of participation.

She stressed that for ongoing policy changes like the EPA rule and pollution credits, public input and awareness is crucial. Michiels encouraged affected or concerned communities to contact local agencies, and attend public meetings. The EPA is currently taking public input on its proposed lead and copper rule changes for the next 60 days. “It’s really important for the public and groups that care about clean, safe water to weigh in,” said Michiels. “Because there is always a chance that what is proposed does get weakened.”

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