Trump EPA Cuts Will Hamper Efforts to Enforce Lead Standards for Drinking Water

Jerri-Lynn here:  Lack of access to clean drinking water is a national disgrace not confined to the unfortunate residents of Flint, Michigan alone. Trump’s proposed 31% cut to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget will only hamper efforts to correct this problem– which predates his administration.

This Real News Network interview with Erik D. Olson, director of The Health Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), discusses the current state of water safety in the United States. He’s the co-author of a 2016 report that found that 18 million people in the U.S. are currently served by water systems with lead violations.

Please note that this is a rush transcript.

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

When we think of access to fresh, clean drinking water, we still think least about poor countries and their struggle with access to clean water supplies as millions around the world are gripped by drought and floods. At the same time, here in the U.S., access to clean water is also becoming a more significant concern. With President Donald Trump’s plans to cut the EPA by 31% will the EPA be able to keep drinking water safe across the U.S.? Will there be more lead contamination as there was in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water last year?

According to our next guest, Flint is not alone. A report he co-authored with, “What’s In Your Water: Flint and Beyond”, found that 18 million people in the U.S. were served by water systems with lead violations. To discuss the current state of water safety in the United States we are being joined by Erik D. Olson. He’s the director of The Health Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in NRDC. Erik, good to have you with us.

ERIK D. OLSON: Thank you. It’s great to be with you.

SHARMINI PERIES: Erik, first I understand before the Flint crisis, Flint didn’t actually show up as having any violations in terms of lead levels by EPA databases. What does this tell us about the monitoring of water across the U.S.?

ERIK D. OLSON: Well, that’s right. I mean, a lot of people are absolutely flabbergasted to hear that Flint did not even show up as having any violations in the national database, even though thousands of other systems have had violations. So what this tells us is that there are a lot of lead problems, and frankly other contamination problems all over the country that aren’t being picked up by our monitoring system, and that’s something to really worry about.

SHARMINI PERIES: Give us a scope of the problem in terms of lead in America’s drinking water.

ERIK D. OLSON: Well, as you mentioned at the top, we found that about 18 million people in the U.S. are served by water systems that violated EPA’s lead rule. And some of those violations were things like they didn’t test the water to make sure that it had acceptable levels of lead or they didn’t treat the water, and some of them were fundamental problems, where they had excessive lead, they hadn’t taken action like adding the chemicals that will reduce the lead levels, very much like what happened in Flint. And we actually found that, believe or not, there are about 4 million households – 4 million people, actually – that were served by systems that knew that they had too much lead in their water and very often little or nothing was being done about it.

SHARMINI PERIES: And the damage that can be caused by drinking water, especially for children, is quite grave.

ERIK D. OLSON: That’s right. Unfortunately, lead is a toxin that especially hurts kids. It interferes with how your brain develops, especially as a young child it can actually cause miscarriages in pregnant women, and unfortunately, some of the effects on cognition, on the way that children think, can be long-lasting and, in fact, probably are irreversible, so too much lead in your water, or, frankly, too much lead from any source is a real danger and can cause all sorts of problems throughout a child’s life as they get older.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And I was actually on a school tour for our four-year-old twins yesterday here in Baltimore, Maryland, and I noticed that over the drinking water foundations there was a big X on it, and there was a note saying Do Not Drink. Is this the kind of future we are going to see and does that mean there’s something contaminated in the school?

ERIK D. OLSON: Yes. This is a widespread problem. A lot of schools have older equipment. Some of them have lead pipes in the school or feeding into the school from the water main – they’re called lead service lines. And some of them have fixtures and fittings and drinking fountains that may have lead in them. So one of the fundamental things that we need to do is really invest in our water infrastructure and that means the pipes underground, and, honestly, that means a lot of schools and daycare centers need to check on whether they’ve got lead in their water that’s coming out of their drinking fountains, and make sure kids are protected and remove those from service, and obviously replace them with something that’s not going to make their kids get too much lead in the water.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And how much of the problem is pipes and retrofitting involved and how much of the problem in the U.S. is really contaminated water sources?

ERIK D. OLSON: Well, for lead, the vast majority of the lead that ends up in people’s tap water comes from pipes and from fixtures. We know about 22 million people get their water from what basically is a lead straw. It’s a pipe that goes from the water main to the person’s house, and that’s called a lead service line, and we really need to pull those out of the ground. They’re doing that in some cities, in Lansing, Michigan, in Madison, Wisconsin, a few other cities have made that commitment. We’re trying to get that to happen at Flint, and we would like to see much more broadly nationally a plan to pull out all those lead pipes across the country. That’s going to cost money, but we need to invest in it.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Now, with President Trump’s proposed budget cuts, 31% for the EPA, could we expect to see more crises like the one in Flint, Michigan?

ERIK D. OLSON: Unfortunately, I think that’s a very real threat. If you actually imagine that you cut 31% of the EPA’s budget and fire 3,200 people, which is what they’re proposing, of the EPA staff, it’s going to be very difficult or impossible for the EPA to be tracking down violations of the lead standards and many other requirements, of health protection requirements, or basic environmental laws. So we’re extremely concerned that a huge cut in the EPA’s enforcement budget, a huge cut in the EPA’s drinking water program, really could have long term, serious adverse effects on public health and on our environment.

SHARMINI PERIES: And, Erik, finally, what are the hot spots you’ve found, as far as lead poisoning, in the water across the U.S.?

ERIK D. OLSON: Well, there’s another location that’s very similar to Flint’s unfortunately. It’s called East Chicago. It’s right across the border from Chicago. It’s in Indiana. And the EPA found they have a systemic problem with lead contamination in their drinking water. We about a week or two ago petitioned the EPA to take an emergency action to clean up the drinking water in East Chicago, Indiana. Haven’t heard back from them yet, and we’re very worried that a lot of other communities like this, that may have problems, are not going to be addressed at all if we chop the EPA’s budget to the point that they’re a skeleton crew and can’t do their job.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. All right. I’ve been speaking with Erik D. Olson. He’s the Director of Health Programs at the Natural Resource Defense Council. Erik’s got a report out on lead poisoning in our water systems. Erik, I thank you so much for joining us, and I urge everybody to go and read this report and be more conscious of what’s happening to your water supply. I thank you, Erik.

ERIK D. OLSON: Thank you, and I would urge your watchers to check and you can find that report right there.

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. Thank you. And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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  1. bronco

    The standards already were unenforced double the budget tomorrow and they still won’t be enforced . It’s not a bug its a feature

    1. fresno dan

      “The standards already were unenforced…”

      I agrab!!! there muybe sum mookstakes in me post due to me lead heab and the resultoont braim damuge

  2. PH

    It is odd and misleading to go out of your way to mention that the lead problem pre-dates the Trump administration. It implies a lack of fault.

    To the contrary, the Trump administration is a Republican administration, and his environmental policies are longstanding Republican policies. That Trump would adopt them was predictable, and predicted.

    The biggest impediment to the kind of infrastructure spending needed to address the lead problem is the anti-tax propaganda of last few decades. The Republican red meat message.

    Supplemented by Republican anti-science and anti-regulation propaganda.

    Who do you think has fought those agendas?

    The Dems. Not all of them fighting stoutly, but some did. And they were the only ones fighting for the kids on this issue.

    1. Vatch

      The Republican Reagan administration and the Republican George W. Bush administration worked very hard to eviscerate the EPA. Lead poisoning problems that predate the Trump administration also predate the Obama administration.

      Some of the Democrats haven’t opposed the Republican agenda with sufficient vigor, but they have opposed the Republicans on these issues. This is a clear demonstration that the Republicans are worse than the Democrats.

      Remember Anne Gorsuch, Reagan’s EPA administrator? She was as foul in the EPA as James Watt was in the Interior Department. And now Gorsuch’s son is poised to become a Supreme Court justice.

      1. fred

        If only there were an alternative governmental body capable of ensuring safe drinking water. Maybe we should create “states”, “counties” or even “municipalities ” that would have the ability to ensure drinking water were safe. Of course we should not expect a private company to ensure drinking water in bottles is safe either, apparently only the EPA can determine that. It’s not like anyone is going to sue a water bottling company, a state, a country or a municipal water treatment operator for poisoning the water supply.

          1. fred

            Elections matter. Democrats lost in all those places. Maybe my fellow Democrats can double down on how much better federal government employees are because the local employees running the water treatment system can’t be trusted not to purposely poison the people who pay them.

            1. pretzelattack

              peoples’ lives matter too, and getting elected doesn’t give republicans carte blanche to endanger those lives. the local employees didn’t make the decision in flint to use flint river water.

        1. PH


          You raise two separate issues: what levels are safe, and who should be responsible for corrective action. In both cases, Federal responsibility makes more sense. There is no local tax base sufficient for the infrastructure effort needed.

          You ignore my main point.

            1. Vatch


              I don’t understand your point. If there’s no funding, there’s no enforcement. And even if there’s funding, if the supposed enforcers are Republicans, there won’t be much enforcement. And even prior to this year, funding was low because of the Republicans in the Congress and various state legislatures.

    2. Corbin Dallas

      Thank you PH.

      As I’ve pointed out a few times, in the vigor and sweep to indict the neoliberal shift of the D party (and especially the Obama/DNC/Pritzker) wing sometimes the hysteria goes off the rails. There is a way to hate on both parties and yet maintain a granular approach to seeing who’s at fault, and laying blame. Otherwise its just dilettantism to just give up.

  3. Marc Andelman

    Water technology is truly a job for self funded inventors and private scientists, apart from institutions, where support is virtually nil. Take a look at the fine print on the website for the “Water Research Institute”. I know of no institutions with substantial funding for water purification R&D right now, with the possible exception of the Bureau of Reclamation. That has matching fund strings, except for universities, which, unless people think academia is the sole source of innovation, excludes most of the universe. Maybe there are a few more pennies here and there that are a waste of money as too little to do much other than give a false idea that something is being done.
    “Principal investigators may apply for research project funding support from NWRI, which typically funds 2-6 new projects a year. NWRI-supported research projects have budgets ranging from $20,000 to $100,000 a year.
    Please note that the graduate students of principal investigators currently receiving funding for a research project from NWRI are ineligible to receive an NWRI Fellowship.
    NWRI does not have a specific deadline for pre-proposal or proposal applications. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.”
    Update as of August 2012 – NWRI is not currently accepting pre-proposals or applications at the moment.

  4. tegnost

    Responding to PH at 9:08…Maybe the author was attempting to inoculate herself from the 20-30 percent of the eligible to vote population that wants to claim that everything was perfect until trump came along, when in fact it was not. Also, if I remember correctly, the EPA was set up by prez nixon, a republican. Obama did nothing regarding lead as far as I can see, and trump has only been prez for two months, not nearly long enough to create this problem. If I remember another thing correctly, there was a massive giveaway to banksters in 2009 onward, where was the massive infrastructure project to clean up the water supply by the same administration? Too busy distracting from the impact of fracking on water supplies? Too busy selling off the post offices? Too busy pumping QE into the real estate sector screwing every renter in the country while fighting a $15 min wage to help them pay for it? You seem to forget that the dems determined that the best way to fill their rice bowls was to be republicans also, and the dogs didn’t eat the dog food. Hope and change is a bad thing to promise people when you’re going to deliver more of the same, or hiding worse than that under a thin oily sheen of concern. The O administration was a pathetic joke and trump is the punch line, so knock yourself out complaining about policies you disapprove of, but acting as if it were great and now it’s not is untrue. If that were so, trump would not be president. The dems weren’t fighting for the kids, and still aren’t as is proven in the article by the excessive lead in the water supply.

    1. PH

      You are mistaken about what party has been fighting for environmental regulation, and which party has been fighting against it.

      In any event, the bigger hurdle is the tax issue. Who is willing to pay for the infrastructure needed? By raiding the Pentagon budget, or new taxes?

      Repubs are loudly opposed to such actions.

      Blue Dog Dems cower in fear when presented with the issue.

      What do the American people want ? How would the people vote if the candidates offered a stark choice?

      I do not know. There is work to do on the campaign trail.

      1. bronco

        If the D party has been fighting for anything its space to get their snouts in the trough . Neither party is interested in what the people want , any benefits to the people under Democratic leadership are purely accidental.

        1. Vatch

          I think that PH’s point is that although some Democrats are not fighting for environment protection, some are, and very few are opposing environmental protection. And that most of the politicians who are actively opposed to environmental protection are Republicans.

          There is a stark difference between the typical Republican politician and the typical Democratic politician on these issues. See for details.


    Given the suggested link between the removal of lead from gasoline and the decrease in the crime rate, Law-and-Order Trump would be making crime worse under his watch due to these cuts.

  6. Paul Greenwood

    EPA clearly had ZERO impact in California regarding lead. Doesn’t Jerry Brown understand the issue or is CA simply waiting for Trump to send in the EPA ?

    1. Vatch

      Some Democrats, such as the ones who supported Sanders, oppose the trade treaties. In 2018, it will be important to support the correct Democrats in the primaries. Opposition to the trade treaties TPP, TISA, TTIP, etc.) should be an important check box item when deciding whether or not to support a candidate.

  7. NY Geezer

    Many millions of desperate men and some women who previously worked in blue collar jobs seek comparable work and can’t find it.

    Many cities and towns have decaying infrastructure including badly decayed lead water supply pipes that are a known health hazard and should have been replaced long ago.

    No rational person believes that there is not sufficient money available to the federal government to provide these millions of people decent work performing a very important public service here.

    1. PH

      You are right, of course. But the trick is to the public to see the choice in these terms. Instead, the issue is framed as raising taxes, insufficient support for the military, or burdening our grandchildren with huge government debt.

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