First Flint –- Now Philly?

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Construction workers dig during a sewer and water line project Thursday, July 3, 2014, in Philadelphia. 

In 2014, a City of Philadelphia Water Quality Report contained this reassuring message: “We are committed to reducing the corrosive effects of plumbing and lead levels in water.” The report’s authors encouraged readers to distribute the findings widely to apartment complexes, businesses, nursing homes, and schools.

This week, a group of Philadelphia residents filed a class action lawsuit against the city, alleging that for years municipal officials knew about the city’s lead-contaminated water supply and did nothing to warn residents.

Philadelphia is just the latest city to be hauled into court over post-Flint water contamination and testing issues, and it is probably not the last. An investigation by The Guardian found that at least 33 cities, including Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia, used faulty water testing protocols, similar to the ones identified in the Flint debacle.

The Guardian also identified potential major contamination issues in in 17 states. Two states, Michigan and New Hampshire, gave municipal officials specific instructions to take additional time with testing in order to produce results that meshed with federal guidelines. The NAACP filed a federal class action lawsuit last month against the state of Michigan and others in the Flint water crisis.

The Philadelphia lawsuit, filed in the Philadelphia County court system, charges that city construction projects and water main repairs caused lead to seep into residential water supplies and that city officials neglected to implement recommended corrective measures or advise residents of water contamination. Moreover, it alleges that officials concealed the problem by manipulating testing procedures to increase the likelihood of results that complied with federal water regulations.

The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, Eleni Delopoulos, a Philadelphia actress, pursued the action against the city. City workers who were replacing water mains near the 37-year-old mother’s home told her not to let her toddler son play in the dirt, since the soil was contaminated by lead. The city did not notify the family in advance about the work or any associated risks, according to the suit.

The city has been faulted for the tiny sampling of homes at highest risk for lead contamination. About 50,000 homes are connected to the city’s water supply by lead pipes. To conduct the survey on which it based its 2014 report, the city sent out 8,000 requests for volunteers: 334 replied and 134 were finally selected. A larger sample size would have likely provided a more accurate picture of the extent of the contamination risks.

Philadelphia officials no doubt believed that the sample size was more than adequate: Pennsylvania regulations require a minimum sample size of 50 homes.

Another Guardian investigation found a comparable problem in the Philadelphia public schools: District officials never informed parents or the public about lead-contaminated school drinking water.

The disregard for public health across a wide swath of the country raises serious questions about the training and integrity of officials entrusted with water quality and treatment.  

Despite ongoing questions about water testing in the city, Philadelphia officials doubled down on a mystifying public relations strategy, calling at least one earlier news investigation “inaccurate.” In February, questions about the city’s variance from Environmental Protection Agency protocols prompted one city official to tell Philly.com, “It's guidance. It's not regulation. We are following what we know is good science for Philadelphia,” as if good water testing science varies from city to city.

The lawsuit against the city called the city’s explanations “insincere and illogical.” A spokesman for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney declined to comment on the lawsuit.  

Several cities have pushed back on The Guardian report. A Rockford, Illinois, official told a local newspaper that the city had revised its testing procedures and that the Guardian used out-of-date information. Officials in Buffalo and Boston also raised questions about news outlet’s story and said that they intend to revamp testing protocols in future rounds of testing.

The crux of the problem may lie in netherworld between guidelines and regulations, as The American Prospect noted in a February article on local governments and federal water testing and treatment standards. The EPA issues guidelines to help state and local officials understand and comply with federal regulations. But guidelines do not pack the punch of regulations that carry specific penalties for violations.

Instead of prodding officials towards best practices in the federal regulatory regime, guidelines have become optional steps that some municipalities appear to be content to ignore even though lives are at risk.

The American water treatment crisis is the logical outcome of an anti-regulatory political climate that values pruning back regulations and eliminating the people needed to oversee the ones that remain in force. It allows state and local officials to ignore both good science and the public good.

In recent decades, some commentators have argued that “nudging” gets better results than regulation. It sure hasn’t improved the safety of the water we drink. 

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