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Contaminated Drinking Water

Drinking water comes from two sources: groundwater or surface water.  Groundwater is pumped from wells; surface water includes rivers and reservoirs. All water will contain natural contaminants.  This results from the ground through which the water naturally flows.

A number of possible sources of man-made contamination exist.  Those sources are referred to as point sources and diffuse sources.  Examples of point sources include discharge from a sewage treatment plant or an industrial facility.  Point sources are easily identifiable and controlled.  Examples of diffuse sources include runoff from roads and agricultural land.  Diffuse sources are not as easily identified or controlled.  Source contamination can vary significantly over time, adding to the difficulty in identifying it.

Unwanted chemicals from improper water treatment can contaminate drinking water and even result in sediments in the water pipes.  Water can also be contaminated as it is being distributed.  This can be a result of iron pipes or outside pollutants.  If there is an above ground contaminant spill, it can seep through the ground and enter the water pipes.  Water contamination can also occur inside the home.  This is frequently a result of lead or copper pipes in the home.

Drinking water is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  The EPA enforces contaminant standards set by the Safe Water Drinking Act.  The EPA does this in part by working with states, tribes and other jurisdictions.

Flint, Michigan

The city of Flint, Michigan provides an excellent, and tragic, example of what can happen when a city’s water supply is contaminated.  First, some facts about Flint.

Flint is outside of the city of Detroit and has a population of 98,310.  Approximately 41.6 percent of residents live below the poverty level.  Flint is also 56.6 percent African-American.  According to the U.S. Census, median household income in the city is $24,679 and the median household income for Michigan overall is $49,087.

The state of Michigan took over the city of Flint’s management in 2011 when it was projected the city faced a $25 million deficit.  The water supply faced a $9 million deficit; however, city officials were using money intended to fund the water supply to cover other expenses in the city’s general fund.

The city switched water supplies in 2014 to help reduce the water fund shortfall.  The city began using the Flint River as a water source temporarily while a new pipeline to Lake Huron was being constructed.  The river had been Flint’s primary source of water decades earlier, but in 1967 the city began purchasing its water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

A class action lawsuit alleges that the State Department of Environmental Quality had not treated the river water with an anti-corrosive agent.  This was in violation of federal law.  According to a study by Virginia Tech the Flint River water was 19 times more corrosive than the water the city had been purchasing from Detroit.

As a result of this failure to treat the water, lead from major service lines began leaching into the city’s water supply after the city switched to the Flint River.

Lead exposure in children has tremendous health effects.  These can include delayed puberty, behavioral disorders, hearing problems and impaired cognition.  It also affects pregnant women, causing reduced fetal growth.  Lead can also affect the heart, nerves and kidneys in everyone.  Currently, there are no treatments for these negative health effects caused by lead.

Beyond Flint

Lead contamination in Flint, Michigan has finally become a recognized issue, but Flint is not alone.  Experts say this country must make massive infrastructure investment to protect the health of Americans.

Data from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that only nine states in this country have safe levels of lead in their drink water.  These states include Tennessee, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alabama, Mississippi, Nevada, Kentucky, Arkansas and Hawaii.  The EPA goes on to report that 41 states had Action Level Exceedance (ALEs) in the past three years.  This means that the states reported unacceptable amount of lead in their drinking water.

In March of 2016, the White House and 150 other institutions pledged more than $5 billion to improve water quality nationwide.  It was stated that “water challenges are facing communities and regions across the United States, impacting millions of lives and costing billions of dollars in damages.”

In 1991, the EPA published a regulation known as the Lead and Copper Rule, intended to restrict lead and copper in drinking water.  The regulation requires that if the lead or copper levels in the water supply exceed acceptable levels, the public must be informed and lead service lines may have to be replaced.

The EPA also reported that of the 7,000 schools that are covered by the Lead and Copper Rule, 431 had excessive levels of lead between 2012 and 2015.

One problem with the Lead and Copper Rule is that it creates shared responsibility between the utility and the homeowner.  Utilities are not responsible for the pipes in a consumer’s home.  How far does that extend?  Who is responsible for service lines?  This shared responsibility often results in no one taking responsibility, each party assuming the other is responsible.

Experts go on to say the focus needs to be on the infrastructure that brings the water to homes, schools,

and other institutions.  One economist estimates that if the country invested $80 billion over the next nine years, it would save the country $200 billion.  Those investments would be made in water treatment plants, pipes and other water infrastructure.

It is acknowledged that the water crisis in Flint is severe and extreme.  It is far from the only case of lead-contaminated tap water in the nation.  However, a lack of transparency and reporting, a lack of state oversight, and failure in accountability in federal and state governments means the issue is largely unknown, according to one expert.

Reach Out to Our Experienced Personal Injury Attorneys

If you have concerns about the safety of the water supply in your area, or if you or your child has been injured because of water contamination, contact us today for a free consultation. The experienced Atlanta personal injury attorneys at Bader Scott Injury Lawyers are ready to speak with you about your situation today.

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Seth Bader
(678) 562-5595