Under the Dome

After Flint crisis, NC pushes EPA for tougher water protections

Pastor David Bullock holds up a bottle of Flint water at a protest outside Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's office on Jan. 14, 2016.
Pastor David Bullock holds up a bottle of Flint water at a protest outside Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's office on Jan. 14, 2016. AP

The recent trend with North Carolina state government has been toward resisting any regulations that come from the federal government, which are often more stringent. So it was an interesting turn of events this week when the state Department of Environmental Quality told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency it should adopt North Carolina’s tougher protections for drinking water.

North Carolina law requires notice be given within 48 hours of regulators detecting water that tests high for lead or copper. The state is asking the feds to narrow its notification requirement from the current 30 days to 48 hours.

DEQ regulators, under fire in recent years from some environmentalists and political opponents of the administration for lax regulation, must take some satisfaction in turning the tables on the EPA, an agency that North Carolina is otherwise at war with on several contentious issues.

“In light of the Flint crisis, we want the federal government to follow North Carolina’s example by strengthening its rule to ensure residents promptly receive notification of high lead or copper sampling results,” DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart said in a statement his office released Thursday.

The move comes as communities across the country want to know from their environmental regulators if widespread poisoning that occurred from aging lead pipes in Flint, Mich. could happen there. North Carolina legislators have asked the state agency for reassurance.

The agency has reported in a memo to the legislature that it adheres to federal standards for lead and copper pipes, with the addition of the 48-hour notice.

Water systems in North Carolina began surveying for lead and copper in the early 1990s, and in 2006 the state determined that about 80 systems used lead service lines, according to the memo. Those systems are gradually being replaced through normal maintenance or street construction projects, according to DEQ. The agency says it is in the process of developing more current information about the extent of lead service pipes.

No water system has been contaminated sufficiently to require mandatory replacement, DEQ says. Water quality advocates have cautioned that Flint could happen anywhere.

Environmental lawyer Robin Smith of Chapel Hill was an official with the state agency when it adopted the shorter, 48-hour notice as a result of lead spikes in Durham and Greenville.

“I think requiring notice of a high lead test result to consumers within 48 hours is a significant change for the better,” Smith said Friday. “Given the dangers lead poses to young children, 30 days is a long time.”

The agency’s petition asks for other changes to the EPA lead and copper rule, the benefits of which Smith said were less clear. Here is the agency’s petition to the EPA: http://nando.com/3o4

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO