Lead in Flint, Michigan's Drinking Water: Federal
March 2, 2016 (IN10446)
Mary Tiemann, Specialist in Environmental Policy (firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-5937)
In April 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan, stopped purchasing treated water from the city of Detroit and began using the
Flint River as its water source without providing corrosion control treatment. (A key source of lead in drinking water is
the corrosion of plumbing materials in the distribution system and households.) While some water quality changes were
quickly apparent, elevated lead concentrations were identified over a longer period through monitoring conducted by
the city and others and detections of elevated blood lead levels in children. On October 1, 2015, city officials urged
residents to stop drinking the water. On October 16, Flint reconnected to Detroit's water and advised residents not to
use unfiltered tap water. The city and the governor of Michigan each declared a state of emergency. President Obama
issued an emergency declaration on January 16, 2016.
On January 21, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an emergency order directing the city and
state to take immediate actions to address concerns over the city's water system. Requirements include, among others,
that the city and state re-optimize corrosion control, post online lead monitoring results and weekly reports, and ensure
the city's capacity to operate the system in compliance with federal regulations. EPA's current Flint responses include
providing technical assistance for water testing and treatment, conducting water monitoring, and identifying lead
service line locations.
Federal Regulatory Role
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) authorizes EPA to regulate contaminants in water supplies. SDWA regulations
establish compliance obligations for public water systems (PWSs) and state agencies to which EPA has delegated
primary enforcement responsibility for the PWS supervision program. Forty-nine states, including Michigan, have this
States have first-line responsibilities for administering SDWA programs, providing technical assistance to systems, and
compelling systems to comply with regulations. Section 1414 provides that, in addition to overseeing states, when EPA
finds that a water system is not in compliance, EPA must notify the state and system and provide assistance to both in
order to bring the system into compliance. If, after 30 days, a state does not initiate enforcement action, EPA must do
so. Under SDWA's emergency powers (Section 1431), EPA "may take such actions as [the Administrator] may deem
necessary" to protect human health when a contaminant in a water system "may present an imminent and substantial
endangerment to the health of persons" and state and local authorities have not acted. This authority is available even
absent a violation. EPA used this authority to issue the emergency order. (A broader CRS memorandum discussing
selected federal roles and authorities is available from the author upon request.)
Lead and Copper Rule
EPA regulates lead in drinking water through the 1991 Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), which includes use of a treatment
technique (corrosion control) to prevent these metals from leaching into water. The LCR includes a lead "action level"
of 15 parts per billion. If more than 10% of tap-water samples exceed the action level, a PWS has not violated the rule,
but other requirements—corrosion control, public education, additional water monitoring, and lead service line
replacement—can be triggered. A system violates the rule if it does not take the triggered actions. If a system plans to
change its water source, the state must be notified.
In October 2015, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) announced that it had followed the
wrong monitoring protocol for Flint. Reportedly, the city conducted water testing incorrectly. In November 2015, EPA
clarified corrosion control requirements for large systems that previously purchased treated water.
EPA initiated an extensive review of the LCR in 2004 after increased lead levels were detected in the District of
Columbia's water following a water treatment change. EPA promulgated short-term revisions and clarifications in 2007
and continues working on comprehensive revisions. In December 2015, EPA's National Drinking Water Advisory
Council presented recommendations for LCR revisions. EPA plans to propose a revised rule in 2017. Topics being
evaluated include sampling protocols, lead service line replacement, corrosion control, and risk communication.
Events in Flint have raised questions regarding the adequacy of the LCR and scope of EPA enforcement and notification
authorities under SDWA.
Further, these events have focused attention on the state of water infrastructure nationwide and the maintenance and
repair challenges many communities face. The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) program provides
assistance to systems for projects needed to comply with SDWA regulations and protect public health. The
Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 (P.L. 114-113) includes $863.2 million for this program. The President has
requested $1.02 billion for FY2017. (See CRS Report RS22037, Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF):
Program Overview and Issues, by Mary Tiemann.)
In addition to attempts to amend S. 2012, legislation has been introduced in response to the Flint crisis. House-passed
H.R. 4470 would require systems to notify customers, the state, and EPA of lead action level exceedances and require
EPA to notify the public if the system or state has not done so within 24 hours after EPA receives notification. EPA
would be required to develop a plan for improving information sharing and public communication. S. 2466 would also
authorize EPA to notify the public of action level exceedances. S. 2587 would direct EPA to revise the LCR. H.R. 4438
seeks $1 billion in emergency appropriations for a grant to Michigan to replace water infrastructure. To aid Flint
residents, H.R. 4479 would authorize infrastructure grants; increase DWSRF loan forgiveness; authorize assistance
under health, education, and other programs; and require establishment of the Center on Excellence on Lead Exposure,
an advisory committee, and health registry. S. 2579 would require disclosure of any lead level exceedance within 15
days, provide water infrastructure loan guarantees and DWSRF capitalization grants (and increased loan forgiveness),
fund public health programs, and require the establishment of a lead exposure registry and advisory committee. H.R.
4653 would direct EPA to establish a lead service line replacement grant program.