Nearly one in four Americans — 77 million people in the U.S. — are drinking water that comes from untested or contaminated systems, and Ohio ranks as one of the worst states for offenses.
A new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that there were nearly 80,000 violations impacting every state in the U.S. in 2015, but consequences were few and far between due to a lack of under-reporting and lax enforcement of environmental laws.
Ohio landed as one of the worst offenders on the list — seventh out of the top 10 — for the most offenses. States that ranked worse for offenses compared to Ohio included: Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Washington.
“The problem is two-fold: there’s no cop on the beat enforcing our drinking water laws, and we’re living on borrowed time with our ancient, deteriorating water infrastructure,” said Erik Olson, health program director at NRDC and the report’s co-author.
The report ranked troubled states by the amount of people who were served by systems with violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency sets standards for drinking water quality, and also works with partners to implement technical and financial programs to ensure drinking water safety.
Olson said water quality concerns go beyond just lead in water, an issue thrust into the public eye after extraordinary contaminations that devastated communities like Flint, Mich. and Sebring, Ohio.
Ohio has more than 4,800 public water systems. The state EPA’s division of drinking and ground waters ensures that public water systems comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the agency also evaluates potential threats to source waters.
The new NRDC report, which analyzed data from 2015, found that about 1.2 million people in Ohio were served from public water systems that had violations related to Nitrates. Another 806,991 people were served by systems that had more than 149 violations under the Combined Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rules.
And, another 154,649 people were served by Ohio public water systems that violated the Lead and Copper Rule — a total of 97 violations. The report named the top 10 systems in Ohio with health-based violations in 2015 — ranking the worst by the amount of people served by a system with violations.
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The Columbus Public Water System was ranked as the top offender, serving about 1.2 million after violating the Safe Drinking Water Act for having unacceptable levels of Nitrates in the water. Excessive concentrations of nitrate in water can be hazardous to people, especially pregnant women and children, according to the Water Research Center.
Heidi Griesmer, an Ohio EPA spokeswoman, said the Columbus water system did have a violation in 2015 and another in 2016. However, the system returned to compliance within about a week after last year’s issue, and now the city is installing a treatment component for Nitrates removal.
Wright State University also made the list, serving 21,243 people. The university violated the Combined Disinfectants and Disinfection Byproducts Rules. Piqua City public water system, which serves 20,522 people, also violated the same rule. That rule tightens compliance monitoring requirements for byproducts like haloacetic acids, bromate and chlorite, which can be harmful if consumed in excess.
Griesmer also said none of the 10 public water systems listed by the NRDC report are repeat offenders — and none are under enforcement by the EPA. The report may overstate the problem, she said, as many of these violations are easily fixable.
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However, local utilities like Dayton and Montgomery County have had no water quality violations in recent years. Dayton, which pumps, treats and serves water to over 400,000 people throughout the Miami Valley, has won several awards in recent years for water quality efforts.
“Small systems have the highest percentage of water violations, and it’s largely due to financial and technical capacity issues that will only get worse when the EPA cuts drinking water programs,” said Mae Wu, senior attorney with NRDC’s Health program.
Systems in Toledo, Akron, Youngstown, Elyria and Westerville also landed on the list. Water quality issues have also impacted other local water systems in Dayton, Cincinnati and Springfield.
In June 2016, lead levels up to 10 times the acceptable threshold were found in the water supply on the Miami Valley Hospital campus. The issue was traced back to a road construction project on a nearby street, which disrupted sediment into the water.
Increased levels of lead in the water, among other water quality issues, are often caused by aging infrastructure — decades-old pipes made of materials no longer deemed suitable for current-day systems.
Wu said aging infrastructure and run-off from agricultural sites are two major causes of water quality issues in Ohio. An investigation by this newspaper found that replacing aging water in communities across Ohio could cost rate payers billions of dollars in coming.
The Dayton Daily News reviewed hundreds of public records to analyze the water systems in nine local counties, and found that thousands of cities, counties, schools and businesses are connected to pipes that most likely contain lead.
Most older cities and counties will have some lead component in their system, and many Ohio utilities developed plans to replace lead lines and aging infrastructure. Those efforts mean potentially spending big bucks for cities, counties — and rate payers. About 6 billion to 10 billion lead service lines need to be replaced across the U.S., and that is estimated to cost up to $80 billion, according to an EPA white paper.
The total replacement value of the Montgomery County water and sewer system is about $3.1 billion. Over the next 20 years, an estimated $210 million needs to be spent on water infrastructure; $128 million needs to be spent on sewer infrastructure; and $250 million needs to be spent on above ground water and sewer infrastructure — entities like waste water plants, elevated water storage tanks and water pump stations.
The cost typically falls on rate payers, as utilities owners say there aren’t many grants or federal funding for replacement or water quality.
“I would love to say there are federal and state grants available for that, but I don’t see those out there currently,” said Pat Turnbull, director of Montgomery County Environmental Services. “So our water and sewer infrastructure, and our operation of that infrastructure, is 100 percent paid for with water and sewer rates.”
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Some advocates claim that could worsen if President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to the EPA budget are finalized. The cuts look to shrink the EPA by 31 percent and eliminate a quarter of the agency’s 15,000 jobs.
“Americans have a right to safe, clean drinking water, but President Trump is killing that right with a meat axe,” said Jamie Consuegra, a legislative director with NRDC. “Our tap water should not poison us or make us sick. We can’t play politics with our health or our children’s future.”
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