US GOV'T. FAILING TO PREVENT DRINKING WATER CONTAMINATION
The discovery in 2004 of lead contamination in the District of Columbia's drinking water resulted in an administrative order between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the District's Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), requiring WASA to take a number of corrective actions.
WASA also took additional, longer-term measures, most notably a roughly $400 million program to replace what may be 35,000 lead service lines in public space within its service area.
As in WASA's case, water utilities nationwide are under increasing pressure to make significant investments to upgrade aging and deteriorating infrastructures, improve security, serve a growing population, and meet new regulatory requirements.
"Unfortunately, drinking water reservoirs and facilities are aging and weren't built to service over 300 million people in the United States. Add the number of illegal aliens to the population and you have a recipe for disaster," said political strategist Mike Baker.
"The causes of tap water contamination are many, ranging from agricultural runoff to improper use of household chemicals and everything in between. Few of us realize the extent or impact of these low level synthetic chemicals in the water we use," said Baker.
"While the standard use in our society of over 80,000 different syntthetic chemicals has offered added convenience and productivity in our lives, it has also come at a tremendous price... drastic increases in degenerative disease."
In order to start to address these issues involving drinking water, the US Congress requested investigators and analysts to conduct an inquiry and report their findings to lawmakers.
The analysts from the Government Accountability Office relied primarily on past investigations especially its 2005 and 2006 reports on lead contamination in drinking water, as well as other recent GAO reports examining the nation's water infrastructure needs and strategies to address these needs.
With the introduction of orthophosphate to its drinking water WASA has consistently tested below the federal action level for lead. However, WASA is reevaluating its roughly $400 million, longer-term solution for replacement of what may be 35,000 lead service lines within its jurisdiction.
In addition to the program's high cost, a key problem WASA faces is that, by law, it may only replace the portion of the service line that it owns; replacing the portion on private property is at the homeowner's discretion.
"In other words, the government's lack of monitoring drinking water that is distributed through a government-owned plumbing system is now the problem of homeowners in America who already have problems making ends meet. I'm not for big government, but I am for government being held responsible for what they do intentionally or unintentionally," said Baker.
Even so, WASA has been urging private homeowners to participate in their drinking water program by replacing their own portion of the lead lines. Despite these efforts, however, homeowner replacement of lead service lines remains limited.
According to the GAO, of the 14,260 lead service lines WASA replaced through the first quarter of fiscal year 2008, there were only 2,128 instances in which the homeowner participated in private side replacement. Many observers question the benefits of partial lead service line replacement.
In fact, some research to date suggests that partial service line replacement results in short-term spikes in lead levels immediately after partial replacement. Also, there is little long-term reduction in lead levels in drinking water being fed into pipes of private homes and apartment buildings.
One study shows that in the early 1900s, before chlorine, pesticides, herbicides and tand the tens of thousands of other chemicals that we are exposed to every day, the average American had a 1 in 50 chance of getting cancer. However, today 1 in 3 can expect to get cancer in their lifetime, 1 in every 2 males.
"Many of the contaminants found in water can be traced back to improper or excessive use of ordinary compounds like lawn chemicals, gasoline, drycleaning solvents and cleaning products," said Dr. David Ozonoff of the Boston University Of Public Health.
"The way we guarantee safe drinking water is broken and needs to be fixed," added Carol Browner, a US EPA analyst.
WASA's dilemma over its drinking water program is taking place within the context of its other staggering infrastructure needs. Most notably, WASA is undertaking a $2.2 billion effort to meet the terms of a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency requiring the utility to control its sewer overflow problems.
The Washington, DC government's challenges in addressing its lead contamination problems and other infrastructure demands are being mirrored across the country, where infrastructure needs are estimated to range from $485 billion to nearly $1.2 trillion nationwide over the next 20 years.
In particular, many utility companies have had difficulty in raising funds to repair, replace, or upgrade aging water treatment plants and reservoirs. They are also finding it difficult to comply with regulatory requirements; and expand capacity to meet increased demand.
For example, based on a nationwide survey of several thousand drinking water and wastewater utilities, GAO reported that 29 percent of the drinking water utilities and 41 percent of the wastewater utilities were not generating enough revenue from user rates and other local sources to cover their full cost of service.
Analysts also found that about one-third of the utilities deferred maintenance because of insufficient funding, had 20 percent or more of their pipelines nearing the end of their useful life, and lacked basic plans for managing their capital assets.
"Drinking water plants are old and out of date, and water supplies are increasingly threatened by and contaminated by chemicals and microorganisms," said Baker.
Other GAO analysis strongly suggests that the nation's water utilities could more effectively manage their infrastructure at a time when huge investments are needed. In 2004, for example, GAO cited "comprehensive asset management" as one approach that could help utilities better identify and manage their infrastructure needs.
While by no means a panacea to their fundamental fiscal challenges, water utilities can use comprehensive asset management to minimize the total cost of designing, acquiring, operating, maintaining, replacing, and disposing of water-related assets over their useful lives, while achieving desired service levels.
In the United States, contaminated drinking water in homes and businesses is usually a result of water main breaks or other emergency situations. Parasites cause the majority of problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
"Whether it's from your tap or from a bottle, find out where the water you drink comes from and whether it has been made safe to drink," said a statement from the CDC.
Tom DeWeese - April 17, 2008 - posted at www.newswithviews.com